Keep It in the Family by John Marrs

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Keep it in the Family by John Marrs front cover

When John Marrs titled his new crime thriller Keep It in the Family, he meant something much darker than grandma’s chicken pot pie recipe or granddad’s precious World War II medals. When Mia and Finn buy a new fixer-upper of a house in Bedfordshire, they’re happily unaware of its grisly secrets – secrets that will take root in their own lives.

When Finn met Mia in London, he was already engaged to his long-time sweetheart. But Mia was so different – outspoken, funny, confident, independent – that he married her instead. Debbie and Dave, Finn’s parents, loved Emma, sweet and pliable, and they can’t warm up to Mia. Despite several years of marriage and fertility treatments, she’s yet to carry a baby to term, which is a kernel of misery for both the would-be mother and grandmother.

The new house needs so much work that Finn and Dave take on the bulk of it, and the couple moves into an annexe to the parents’ house. Not only does this mean more frequent interactions between the two women, but closer quarters intensifies their animosity towards one another. It’s hard to decide which of them is the more unreasonable. Neither can do anything the other doesn’t object to or take out of context. This is the kind of difficult family relationship we all hope and strive to avoid, not always successfully.

The short chapters swing back and forth over several decades, with multiple voices narrating them in the first person. Sometimes you have Finn or Mia’s point of view, sometimes Debbie or Dave’s, sometimes you hear from a person who knows the house’s history and readies you for the reveals you know are coming. It isn’t difficult to follow, but it is quite choppy.

Mia unexpectedly falls pregnant, after all the failed efforts of the past, and she and Debbie establish an unspoken ceasefire. Mia is still working at her PR job, remotely though you don’t hear much about it. It doesn’t seem to be part of her life. Nor do you get more than glancing references to the work on the house that occupies Dave and Finn. In fact, if you’re looking for a book that offers well-rounded characters, as well as a chilling plot, this may not satisfy.

One day, when the four family members are present, the men let down the attic stairs and climb up to see what’s in there. Hidden behind a wall they find seven suitcases with a pile of shrink-wrapped children’s clothing in front of each. The latches on the first case are corroded shut but with great effort Finn and Dave wrench it open to reveal a child’s mummified remains. And there are seven of them.

Just as Mia envisioned an end to living with her in-laws, there is no end in sight, because the police have taken over the house. Once her baby boy is born, she falls into a deep postpartum depression, brought on in part by her increasing obsession with the dead children in the attic, as they are identified, one-by-one.

Into this fraught domestic scene are interspersed chapters set at various earlier points, regarding events in the old house that led to the deaths of the children in the rediscovered suitcases. Some of these chapters are from a child’s point of view. (Marrs uses the ‘their’ instead of ‘his’ or ‘her’ even when the gender of the person is known to the speaker, a grammatical trend that creates unnecessary obfuscation.) Some are from the point of view of someone preying on children, whose mental processes are certainly disturbing.

Debbie and Dave have chronic health problems that in part motivate them to spend as much time with their grandson as possible, which is understandable. When you learn that Finn has his own lapses, the quartet of misery is complete. The family is, in short, a mess. Yet it must be hard, especially for people unused to living under a microscope, to cope with the police and media scrutiny, as new information continues to emerge, drop by drop.

Just when you think it’s about as bad as it could be, there’s a new twist in the plot that makes their situation even more untenable. It’s hard to feel sympathy for any of them, trapped in sins of their own commission, omission, or both.

There is a psychotic serial killer at the heart of this novel, and the book will appeal to readers fond of that sub-genre, with a little extra difficulty added because the victims were children. Whether in this story you find the killer’s actions plausible will depend on how persuaded you are by the set-up. Some of it was a bridge too far for me. Most of all, I wish the characters were more three-dimensional, giving me a reason to be interested in them. When they’re all so difficult, whether they get their acts together isn’t a high-stakes matter.

Also see our list of ten of the best serial killer novels, many of them now classics of the genre.

Thomas & Mercer

CFL Rating: 3 Stars

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