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Not a Happy Family


Not a Happy Family

The title of Shari Lapena’s latest domestic thriller is an understatement. NOT A HAPPY FAMLY takes place in the days following the brutal murders of Fred and Sheila Merton in their mansion on Easter Sunday. Their three adult children, who stand to inherit a great fortune, are immediately deemed suspects by investigators. And Catherine, Dan and Jenna begin to suspect each other as well. Lapena throws in a few other likely suspects for readers to consider in this fast-paced whodunit.

While Sheila was a loving, kind and gentle parent, she was never able to defend her children against their hard-hearted and cruel father. Fred seemed to enjoy inflicting emotional pain on his children --- from withholding affection to expressing his disappointment to backing out of financial promises. Catherine, Dan and Jenna are not surprised or affected by his death, though they mourn the loss of their mother to some extent. Their concern rests with their inheritance and demonstrating their innocence. However, even Ted and Lisa, the spouses of Catherine and Dan, have their doubts.

"...[a] fast-paced whodunit.... NOT A HAPPY FAMILY works well as a crime novel, and there are some fun surprises. Overall, Lapena has produced another engaging and entertaining read."

Catherine is a successful dermatologist and the most conventional of her siblings. She was not close with her father but did covet the mansion. Having set her heart on inheriting the house, she was dismayed and angered to find out that he planned to sell it. Dan has been struggling in business, and his father’s hostility only made matters worse. After the discovery of their bodies, everyone eyes him as the perpetrator. Jenna is the youngest of the Merton children --- a bohemian artist living on an allowance. Though she seems the least likely culprit, she has asked her new boyfriend to lie to the police about her activities on the night of the murders.

Each of the three siblings had motive and opportunity, but there are others who would benefit from Fred’s passing. His sister, Audrey, believes that she stands to inherit his fortune. And what about Rose and Ellen Cutter, and their secret relationship to Fred? Of course, there is always the help. Cleaning lady and de facto nanny Irena Dabrowski knows as much about the family as they do about themselves and would do almost anything to protect the children.

Readers, along with Detectives Reyes and Barr, work to fit the pieces of this puzzle together and bring the murderer to justice.

The book gives readers the limited perspective of each character as they respond to the news of the murders, try to put together a united front for investigators, harbor doubts about each other, and dream about the huge inheritance to which they all believe they are entitled. Lapena’s narrative is purely descriptive and written with an almost clinical detachment that mirrors the bloodless and unfeeling responses by those who knew Fred and Sheila best. The Merton family is troubled, dysfunctional and more than “not happy,” yet Lapena offers no real insight into their lives, content instead to drop readers into this moment of violence and paranoia.

NOT A HAPPY FAMILY works well as a crime novel, and there are some fun surprises. Overall, Lapena has produced another engaging and entertaining read.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on July 30, 2021

Not a Happy Family
by Shari Lapena