A Game for all the Family by Sophie Hannah

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Reviewed by Harriet

My name is Justine Merrison and I do Nothing. With a capital N. Not a single thing.

game for all the family

When I tell people I enjoy crime novels, they often jump to the conclusion that I must revel in violence and gore. Not so. If those things are there in an otherwise enjoyable book, I’ll put up with them, but what gives me pleasure is being presented with an obviously insoluble puzzle and finding that it does have a solution after all. So, if you’re at all familiar with Sophie Hannah’s work, you’ll see at once that it fits the bill perfectly. Add to that a series of female protagonists who are almost invariably pyschologically twisted, so that you’re never sure if you can trust, let alone like, them, and you have a recipe for many hours of fascinating reading.

A Game for all the Family is no exception. Here we have Justine Merrison, who has recently resigned from a successful career in TV and moved with her husband and teenage daughter to Speedwell House, idyllically set in the Devonshire countryside, where she plans to have a life of total inactivity. But that’s not going to happen. Her daughter Ellen, initially happy at her new school, starts to become quiet and withdrawn, and Justine is deeply shocked one day to read a piece of her homework that tells the story of a family who live in Speedwell House, one of whom commits dreadful murders. What’s worse is that one character in the story is Ellen herself. But Ellen won’t talk about the story, and makes sure her mother can’t read the continuation of it.

Then Ellen tells her mother that her best friend, George Donbavand, has been expelled from school, and begs Justine to intervene with the headmistress. But the school steadfastly denies that any boy of that name has ever attended the school, let alone been expelled. What is Justine to believe? And if that’s not enough, she starts getting anonymous phone calls. The woman on the other end of the phone seems to know all about her – her job, her family, her home – but Justine knows that she is a complete stranger.

There’s more – but you get the idea. As with every Sophie Hannah I’ve read (and I’ve read them all) I was sitting there thinking, She’s really not going to resolve these puzzles – she’s bitten off more than she can chew this time. But of course she does. I’m not going to say that the resolutions are as satisfactory as the build-up to them – a couple of them do rather stretch your credulity. But hey, there’s so much fun involved in getting there, I hardly minded.

I was pleased in many ways to find that in this novel Hannah has finally (or temporarily) abandoned Simon Waterhouse, the brilliant but emotionally dysfunctional detective, and his saner, tough-but-sensitive wife Charlie. I rather like them, actually, but it seemed to be getting harder and harder to squeeze them into the plot as the series progressed. But what she hasn’t abandoned, and hopefully never will, is her way with fiendish plotting or her ability to create difficult, quirky, not very likeable women and somehow make you root for them and care what happens to them. She’s excellent at family dynamics, too. Justine’s relationship with thirteen-year-old Ellen is superbly done, as is Ellen’s intense and entirely genuine love affair with her schoolfriend George – the two of them are going to marry when they’re old enough, but it will be an open marriage because George is gay, Ellen tells her mother, and somehow you just about believe it, and believe that they might just make it work.

So, if you’re up for some incredible twists and turns, some delightfully grand guinol horror in Ellen’s long story of the blighted and murderous Ingrey family of Speedwell House, a charming Bedlington dog who proves to have a part to play in the story, and lots more – what are you waiting for? It’s on the shelves now.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Sophie Hannah, A Game for All the Family (Hodder & Stoughton: London, 2015). 9781444776034, 419 pp., hardback.

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