“Shari Lapena is the mistress of domestic suspense, and Not a Happy Family takes apart the incredibly dysfunctional life of the Mertons; an elderly couple, Fred and Sheila, and their adult children, Catherine, Dan and Jenna. The parents live in the old family home, a beautiful house with vast gardens and a pool in the wealthy “old money” enclave of Brecken Hill, on the east side of the Hudson River about a hundred miles from New York City. It’s prime real estate, a bit like The Hamptons but less pretentious. Their grownup kids live prosperous lives nearby.
“The day after Sheila holds the traditional family Easter Sunday Dinner, attended by all three of their children and their partners, Irina, formerly the children’s nanny and now the housekeeper, arrives to find both Fred and Sheila brutally murdered. When police inform their offspring they seem shocked and devastated, but secretly elated that they’re about to inherit many millions of dollars – which makes them all prime suspects. All protest their innocence, their alibis confirmed by their partners, but the police, naturally suspicious, want to know if something happened at the family Easter dinner, something which made one of the adult children snap. Well, something certainly happened: Fred Merton, a vicious bully, told his offspring that he and Sheila were downsizing; they were selling their beautiful house.
Catherine, Dan and Jenna Merton all have reasons to hate their parents. Fred is cruel and domineering, and their mother Sheila is vague, neglectful and cold, never standing up for her children when her husband is viciously berating them. She’s been beaten down by Fred and has no spirit left. Catherine’s dream is to inherit their parent’s house, Dan is in deep financial trouble because his father sold the firm his son was supposed to inherit, and Jenna is the family wild child, an artist who sculpts female genitalia, much to her father’s disgust. So all have good reason to bump mum and dad off.
It’s all highly entertaining as well as ingenious. The characters are deeply unlikeable but well drawn, and the various motives for murder and alibis are very cleverly sketched. Reading it is like playing Cluedo with yourself – was it Miss Scarlett in the library with a candlestick, or Professor Plum in the bedroom with a dagger? As Brucie would have said, “Good game, good game.” Good novel too, dark but intriguing, and a heck of a lot of fun.