Benjamin Stevenson has a cinephile buddy who seeks out spoilers. Once an ending is good and ruined, he can focus on the film. Stevenson’s new novel was inspired by this back-to-front tactic. “I thought: ‘what if I spoiled the entire book on the first page,” the author explained in a recent interview, “can I build a crime novel out of it?’”. The result is Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone, an exorbitantly hyped whodunnit, where the grand riddle is the body count. “Everyone in my family has killed someone,” it opens. “Some of us, the high achievers, have killed more than once.”
The dastardly clan in question is the Cunningham family – a grand collision of tropes. There’s an uptight aunt; a quiet addict; a Rolex-wielding lawyer; an imperious matriarch. Our narrator is the affably gormless one, Ernest (the name is no accident). The family is ferociously loyal – united in notoriety – so when Ernest provides the testimony that convicts his brother Michael of murder, he’s ostracised. Even Ernest’s wife leaves him for his homicidal brother. On the eve of Michael’s release from prison, Ernest is summoned to a reunion in the Snowy Mountains. It’s a chance to bury the hatchet, but knowing his family’s lethal inclinations, the hatchet might be real.
When a body is found on the ski-slopes, Michael is immediately suspect, and Ernest appoints himself chalet detective. He is, after all, a self-published writer of how-to guides – “I write books about how to write books” – which is more deductive training than the (predictably hapless) local cop seems to have. “I would either pave my way back into the family with Michael’s absolution,” he explains, “or deliver the final, validating nail in his coffin.” As a snowstorm descends, and the bodies mount, our pseudo-sleuth finds himself living in exactly the kind of tale he writes about: an Aussie underworld version of The Mousetrap. But will real life comply with the “rules” of detective fiction?
Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone arrives with glitzy tales of a Hollywood bidding war and a deal with HBO. “THE AUSTRALIAN NOVEL THAT WILL HAVE EVERYONE TALKING IN 2022!” declares Stevenson’s publisher in emphatic all-caps. The novel is “utterly original” we’re told, alongside the list of everything it so purposefully resembles: “Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle meet Knives Out and The Thursday Murder Club”.
How dreary it is to be the critic who hates the bright shiny thing. How miserly it feels to heckle a homegrown success story. And yet, how this novel grates. “I woke to a hammering at my door,” Ernest recalls. “Of course I did. You’ve read these kinds of books before.” Five pages later, the phone rings: “The phone rang, startling us. Of course it did. You’ve read these kinds of books before.”
And we have read these kind of books before – so doggedly glib, so irksomely quirky (Steve Toltz’s The Fraction of the Whole immediately comes to mind with its high-larrakin shtick). Stevenson conjures a Cluedo-fantasy version of Jindabyne that’s part fusty English manor house (replete with a stuffed carrier pigeon), part Colorado ski lodge (replete with frozen-over lake); alpine Australia in sheer assertion only. “I glossed over the fact that there’s a freaking library with a fireplace in the building (which happens to be where I will solve the damn thing).” Ernest explains. “It’s pretty much a whole How-to-Write-a-Mystery checklist at this point.” It’s all so excruciatingly self-referential.
And until Ernest begins playing at Poirot, he’s terminally uncurious. His brother was convicted of killing a dying man, his victim was already gut-shot. It seems never to have occurred to Ernest – let alone an errant Aussie journo – to identify that victim, explain how he came to be mortally wounded in the first place, or trace his quite blatant connection to the man who ultimately snuffed him out. How any kind of trial went ahead without that information beggars belief. So does the revelation that Ernest has patiently held on to a duffel bag containing $267,000 without particularly caring where his murderous brother acquired it, and if anyone else might want it back. The questions that earnest Ernest asks at the ski-lodge feel years too late – an old reckoning held off in favour of a televisual denouement.
The running gag of Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone is that Ernest is entirely honest – a rare reliable narrator – but that the truth can hide as much as a lie. And so Stevenson’s novel sets out to bamboozle us despite, and with, full disclosure. No clue is left un-signposted. No moment of cleverness left uncelebrated. No punchline left unpunched. “There is only one plot hole you could drive a truck through” Ernest declares in the opening pages, and then later, as a literal truck careens down a hill, he takes pains to remind us that we were duly warned. He teases that some of the character names might be anagrams, and then, in the final pages, obligingly unscrambles them for us.
The most delightful meta murder writers, like Anthony Horowitz and Janice Hallett, beckon their readers in. Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone keeps us at a chatty, ironic distance, teetering on the sharp edge of pantomime. A third of the way through the novel, Ernest pauses the story to give us a recap. He enumerates every piece of evidence and every unanswered question; reintroduces the cast. It’s a wry little passage, full of one-liners (Stevenson is also a standup comic), but it quashes one of the deepest pleasures of murder mysteries: collating and sorting this information for ourselves. For all of Stevenson’s knowledge of the mechanics of whodunnits – for all his performative tricksiness – he loses sights of the genre’s joys. He spoils the fun.