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Playing Nice


Playing Nice

JP Delaney, the pseudonym for a writer of bestselling fiction, has made quite a name for himself in the psychological thriller genre. Since stepping onto the scene in 2017 with THE GIRL BEFORE, each of his books has gotten more and more intense. To that point, his latest release, PLAYING NICE, may be his best and most suspenseful work to date. The title can stand for so many things within this complex storyline. Ironically, I also believe Delaney enjoyed the fact that he did not “play nice” with his readers, who will go through a rollercoaster ride of emotions before the last page is turned.

Pete Riley and Maddie Wilson are the unmarried parents of a two-year-old boy named Theo.  Even though his birth was traumatic --- a premature delivery followed by time spent in the NICU --- he appears to be a happy and well-adjusted little boy. However, he doesn’t always play nice with his fellow toddlers at daycare and often hits them.

"[Delaney] has taken a rare event like the swapping of children at birth and used it as the fuse that is lit and surely will blow up in the final twists and turns of this hotbox of a thriller."

Pete is a stay-at-home dad as he has transitioned in his journalism career to writing magazine stories from home. It is during one seemingly ordinary day that his world, and that of his family, will change forever. There is a knock on the door, and Pete finds two well-dressed gentlemen: Don Maguire, a private investigator from the firm Maguire Missing Persons, and a businessman named Miles Lambert. Pete invites them in and finds out that their little boy may have been swapped with Miles and Lucy's son, David, who was in the same NICU two years earlier.

DNA tests have been done on the Lamberts, and Pete and Maddie will do the same. They make plans to visit with Miles and Lucy and meet David. It is already obvious that Theo shares facial similarities with Miles, and this is reinforced when Pete and Maddie clearly see a resemblance between themselves and little David's face. He did not have as successful a stint in the NICU as Theo did, and has both physical and mental challenges that most likely will be with him for the rest of his life.

The Lamberts have taken steps toward suing the hospital and invite Pete and Maddie to join them. The two couples then awkwardly decide on how to move forward with this extremely uncomfortable and unexpected set of circumstances. Miles is very well off and wants to take care of Theo any way he can. He offers Theo a spot in boarding school, which David obviously will not be using, and this catches Pete and Maddie off guard. Maddie is still somewhat fragile as a result of the serious postpartum breakdown she had with her difficult birth, and Pete is so likable, always looking to please others, that it makes an already delicate situation that much more awkward.

Miles continues to interject himself into Theo's life, teaching him the basics of his favorite sport: rugby. It almost feels like some sort of sick social experiment, with the four parents being thrust into a nature-vs.-nurture environment. As their case against the hospital moves forward, the couples continue to reshape their lives around the two young boys.  Pete and Maddie ask the Lamberts to be Theo's godparents at his christening. When Theo is expelled from his daycare for another violent incident, Miles and Lucy offer to share their nanny with him. Pete now drops off Theo at their house for the day while he works from home and picks him up at the end of the day.

Understanding that this a JP Delaney novel, astute readers already will have begun looking for the cracks in this too-perfect facade. I can tell you, once the first crack starts, it will lead to an all-out shattering of the new normal for each of these characters. PLAYING NICE deftly mirrors the minor childhood skirmishes in the sandlot with the battles and bad behavior adults tend to exhibit when they are fighting for their families. Delaney has created something far more than a mere exposé on the British legal and child welfare system. He has taken a rare event like the swapping of children at birth and used it as the fuse that is lit and surely will blow up in the final twists and turns of this hotbox of a thriller.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on July 31, 2020

Playing Nice
by JP Delaney