Playing Nice by JP Delaney

Reviewed by Harriet

Back in 2017 I reviewed JP Delaney’s brilliant psychological thriller The Girl Before on Shiny (here). All I know about the author is that he’s a man and writes under several pseudonyms. There’s a picture on his website which I suppose must be him. But honestly it doesn’t matter who he is – his novels are stunning – Annabel reviewed The Perfect Wife on Shiny, which I haven’t read, but it’s obviously as brilliant as the others.

Playing Nice is about as nail biting as you could possibly handle, and then some. I imagine that any reader who is a parent will find it particularly agonising, but you certainly don’t need to be one to get caught up in the horrendous events that pursue the two main characters, Pete and Maddie. Right from the start come shock after shock, until the two of them seem to be caught in an ever-increasing whirlpool of disaster. 

Pete and Maddie are the parents of a little boy called Theo, who is two as the story begins. He’s not the easiest of children – he tends to hit other kids, and doesn’t respond well to punishment – but they adore him. And then one day there’s knock on the door. It’s a man called Miles Lambert, who brings disturbing news: Theo is his natural son, not Pete and Maddie’s – Maddie and Lucy Lambert had given birth to premature babies on the same day, and both ended up in a special NHS unit where, somehow, the babies got switched. 

Miles is a successful businessman, very charming, very suave, and he seems eminently reasonable. He suggests that the two families work together for a solution, and tells them they should both be eligible for a huge payout from the NHS. Soon afterwards Theo is excluded from nursery for hitting another child, and Miles offers the possibility of sharing the Lambert’s nanny. This sounds like an excellent idea – Maddie is delighted to meet her own son David: sadly, he turns out to have been brain damaged at birth, but she finds his vulnerability very lovable.

Soon, however, it becomes obvious that Miles is not all he seems. If he doesn’t get his own way, he becomes frightening cold and calm, and is capable of extremely drastic measures in revenge. It becomes clear that he won’t be satisfied until he gets full custody of his natural son, and he pulls out all the stops to make this happen. Pete and Maddie find themselves caught up in a horrendous cycle of visits from social workers, child care experts, and court cases, from which is seems impossible that they will ever escape. Losing Theo comes to seem more and more likely. 

So yes this is a truly unputdownable novel, not least because it shows how easy it is to get caught up in a system of social care and legal investigation which, however innocent you may be, seems destined to uncover all your least admirable history, and the private habits you might prefer not to reveal, and using them against you. It’s also superbly researched and raises some fascinating questions about highly undesirable traits that can be passed down through generations and what effect the form of parenting can have on a child who is obviously showing them. I’d never heard of C U children before (look it up if you’re interested) but you’ll be very glad if you don’t have one yourself.

Those of JP Delaney’s novels I’ve read or read reviews of obviously differ from each other in many ways. But he seems to have an enduring interest in the psychology of powerful, manipulative men and the gentle vulnerable people they come into contact with. In this novel, many people suffer from Miles’s behaviour, including not only his wife Lucy but also, as it turns out, people he’s worked with in the past and, most scarily, people he doesn’t even know who he deems to affected him in a negative way. Will he get what he wants in the end? I can’t tell you, but there is a twist at the end which I didn’t see coming. So all in all this is a superb novel and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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Harriet is one of the Shiny editors and isn’t sure how well she would have coped with a C U child.

JP Delaney, Playing Nice (Quercus, 2020). 978-1529400847, 432pp., hardback.

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