A Sickness in the Family could easily have been a play. Set in a single location with a small cast of characters, the book has something of an updated Agatha Christie about it. It’s a twisting, turning, slowly revealing murder mystery that will have you guessing to the very end.
The story follows the final few days of a deeply dysfunctional family. The mother has had a string of affairs, while the father has ploughed too much of his life into his business. The eldest son is fighting a losing battle against drug addiction, and his sister is resentful that her parents seem unwilling to help her set up in business on her own.
The youngest son was adopted as a baby, one of a series of useless attempts to save the parents’ marriage. And despite being the only member of the family to have an ounce of compassion, he’s uniformly resented by all the others. Also in the house is the wife’s mother, an elderly lady with a huge chip on her shoulder, though she’s incapacitated by an accident quite early on in the book.
It’s these characters that are perhaps the book’s only weakness, and it’s a mild one. Most of them are so thoroughly obnoxious that they’re clearly patsies for Denise Mina to hang the reader’s suspicions on.
Despite this murder mystery cliché it’s a darkly entertaining story and the conclusion managed a good enough twist to catch me out (though, to be fair, I’m no expert at spotting these things). So the author’s misdirection seems justified, if a bit heavy-handed, by the time you reach the end of the book.
The art style is scratchy and inky, pulling a high-contrast noir-style shadow over the piece. With such a small ensamble of characters, however, there’s never any confusion over who is who and the art keeps up well with the script’s pacing.
Overall it’s an accomplished thriller. The story takes its time to reveal the history and background of the characters, and there are plenty of red herrings when it comes to solving the mystery. It’s an entertaining journey, with the twists and turns required of the genre to keep you guessing. Dark and a little forced, but fun nevertheless.