Having too much money can sometimes be just as problematic as not having enough. That’s certainly the case for the Mertons, the obscenely wealthy family at the heart of Shari Lapena’s latest psychological thriller, Not A Happy Family, who find themselves embroiled in a murder case that drags all their dark secrets and lies out into the open. Like a classic Agatha Christie murder mystery, Lapena’s story moves between suspects like a board game arrow, spinning at will and pointing at someone different each time it settles.
The affluent, older couple brutally murdered in their own home are Fred and Sheila Merton, and whilst the initial crime scene indicates a robbery gone wrong due to the ransacked house and lack of physical evidence, it soon becomes clear that the couple most likely knew their killer and the murder was deeply personal. But who could have hated the Mertons enough to end their lives in such a violent way? The answer is: too many people to make this an easy case for the detectives investigating it.
“The truth is, they’re all so much better off now that their parents have been murdered.”
There are plenty of people who would gain from Fred and Sheila’s deaths, but as they comb through the evidence, the detectives are convinced it was one of the three grown-up Merton children, Catherine, Dan and Jenna. They all stood to inherit millions with their parents out of the way, and they weren’t a happy family thanks to their spiteful, cruel father and their neglectful, weak mother. Any one of them could’ve snapped after the tense Easter dinner they shared with their parents the night of the murder. Catherine had just found out the family home she dreamt of one day owning was being sold, whilst Dan was drowning in debt that he blamed his father for. Jenna, the wild child artist, also faced having her allowance cut off and she was the last to see her parents alive.
With each chapter, Lapena spins the suspect arrow with increasing speed, offering up more damning motives and more evidence that puts the three siblings under pressure. They’ve been brought up – as moneyed people often are – to stick together, but whilst they initially want to protect each other, even if one of them did indeed commit the gruesome crime in question, they also want to protect themselves. If there’s one thing these siblings have in common, it’s their innate sense of self-preservation. The fact that all three characters are so inherently selfish, unlikeable and remorseless means it’s impossible for readers to form a clear picture of who really did commit the murder. It could have been one of them, or all of them, or they could have even outsourced…
Not A Happy Family is a compulsive, suspenseful and twisty page-turner that doesn’t give up the killer until the very end. When the murderer is finally revealed, it’s so artfully slipped into the story that you almost don’t realise what’s happened. That’s the real cleverness of Lapena’s writing; when her characters are caught off guard, so are readers. And as for the epilogue, it’s the literary equivalent of a chef’s kiss.
Not A Happy Family was published by Bantam Press on 5 August 2021