A Game for All the Family by Sophie Hannah is a standalone thriller by this New York Times bestselling author, where a woman is pulled into a deadly game of deception, secrets, and lies, and must find the truth in order to defeat a mysterious opponent, protect her daughter, and save her own life.
I feel a bit as if I've jumped on a bandwagon when I say that Sophie Hannah only really registered on my radar when she was tapped by the Agatha Christie estate to write the first authorized Poirot novel since the First Lady of Crime’s passing. Given the amount of praise Ms. Hannah has received for The Monogram Murders, I was very eager to see how she does with a standalone novel, away from Dame Christie's long shadow.
Here, in A Game for All the Family, we meet Justine Merrison—a woman who has turned her back on a stressful career in London in order to move to Devon with her family and do Nothing with a capital N. Things don't quite go to plan, though.
Justine's teenage daughter, Ellen, suffers from a complete personality change, going from precociously quick-witted to sullen and secretive. She finally admits to Justine, after some pressure, that her unhappiness stems from the expulsion of her best friend, George, from the new school she's attending. When Justine meets with the school head in an effort to sort things out, she's told that George has never existed.
At about the same time, a series of bizarre, threatening phone calls begins to plague Justine—first on the house phone, then on her mobile, despite its closely guarded number. Someone knows all the details of her previous life in the city but is calling her by another name—one that appears in the manuscript of a murder mystery Ellen is obsessed with writing. Life in Devon gradually becomes a nightmare, as Justine's sanity and identity are challenged in what some might call a psychological thriller but what I believe is a strong successor to the Gothic tales of murder and madness, where no one could be relied upon for the truth.
Fortunately, Ms. Hannah can be relied upon here for an excellently structured, compulsively readable novel that, like those Gothic tales, skirts the edge of credulity to bring us some really fascinating insights on the human psyche. I particularly loved this passage, written as part of Ellen's murder mystery, the chapters of which are interspersed with the main narrative. The narrator challenges our relationship with the truth and highlights why so many of us love reading the genre:
But what about you, who are reading this story? Do you respect the truth? I haven’t told you what it is yet, have I? I could have done, quite easily, but then you would have taken it for granted. I don’t want you to do that. I think you’ll appreciate the truth more if you struggle for a while to work it out, and then eventually succeed. The harder it is to come by, the more you will value it when you get it. (This is why mysteries are the best kind of stories: because you only get the truth at the very end, when you’re absolutely desperate, and that way of arranging things makes you realize how scarce truth is, in stories and in life, and that it’s really all that matters.)
Ms. Hannah’s appreciation for the charms of the genre, as well as her mastery of structure, makes for exhilarating reading. It was quite wonderful to realize, early on in the novel, that I was in perfectly competent hands, which led me to put my trust in where the story was leading, even as it took wildly unexpected turns. It was also delightful to make the acquaintance of Justine’s droll personality, especially when we share at least one major pop culture obsession.
In the following conversation, Justine and Ellen are discussing George’s mother, whom Ellen blames for all the kerfuffle surrounding his (supposed) expulsion:
“She's a weirdo.”
“What else do you know about her? What’s she a professor of?”
“Assyriology. Which has nothing to do with Syria.”
“I know.” I didn’t, but I see no need to admit to my ignorance. I bet Professor Donbavand doesn’t know how many times Peter Florrick had sex with hooker Amber Madison in The Good Wife. I do: eighteen times.
We all have our different specialties.
The humor never detracts from the tension; instead, it serves to keep the story grounded in reality, even as the events surrounding the Merrisons become increasingly nightmarish. And, when a present-day murder occurs, the reader may find her or himself questioning, again, the importance of the truth. Ms. Hannah’s ability to construct not one but two compelling murder mysteries in the same book makes for a deeply satisfying read, and is absolutely what you’d expect of Ms. Christie’s literary heir.
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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She
microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.
Read all posts by Doreen Sheridan for Criminal Element.