I know mysteries. I read them all the time. Before applying my Origins overnight face mask, I might sneak in a couple of pages of Ruth Ware’s latest release. At airports, I make it my tradition to stop at Hudson Booksellers to grab a New York Times best-selling thriller to keep me preoccupied during my flight. They’re easy. They’re formulaic. There’s that mantra of  “not everything is as it seems” embedded in each page. There’s the unreliable narrator and, if we’re lucky, the alcoholic detective. To top it off, there’s the clichéd twist at the very end. I know what to expect. 

“The Family Upstairs” is different. The novel opens from the perspective of Libby, phoning her mother to reveal news that she’s been waiting for her 25th birthday to announce. Libby simply tells her mom, “They’ve left me the house.” Hidden in this seemingly blasé report is the news that Libby has transitioned from a woman that splurged on inconsequential cosmetics and saved up six months of her hard-earned money for a weekend trip to Barcelona to the owner of a multi-million dollar mansion on Sixteen Cheyne Walk, SW3 Chelsea. It’s easy to understand the magnitude of her transformation by her own thoughts: “Now she owns a house in Chelsea and the proportions of her existence have been blown apart.” 

Indeed, Libby’s “existence has been blown apart,” but not in the way that she thinks. In the process of becoming a very rich woman, Libby investigates the sinister origins of the Chelsea house. Twenty-five years earlier, police were called by a “concerned” neighbor to 16 Cheyne Walk. There, in the kitchen, were three dead bodies: An elegant woman, a man with salt-and-pepper hair and another unidentifiable man. They were dressed in black, hands clasped together. Upstairs, a baby was crying. According to the police report, their deaths have been deemed a suicide, but the circumstances are strange. Why hasn’t the family been seen in public for months? Who took care of the baby weeks after the parents died? And, most importantly, where are the other four children who supposedly lived in the Chelsea house? 

The novel is told in three perspectives — Libby Jones, Lucy and Henry — during the past and present. Whenever I’m immersed in the point-of-views of several characters early in the novel, I tend to get distracted. I’m usually not invested enough in each character to continue reading.  I didn’t feel that with “The Family Upstairs.” Each character offered relevant information that served to spur my curiosity more. Libby, Lucy and Henry could have easily been written as plot devices solely to heighten the stakes of the mystery. Instead, we delve deeply into their personal history and characterizations. Certainly, they are related to the mysterious Chelsea deaths in some way, but we’re only given bits and crumbs in each chapter. In the process, we learn the ways that Lucy juggles life as a homeless single mother and, in the past, Henry’s tumultuous relationship with his father as well as his burgeoning romance with a lanky blond-haired boy. Even as I approached the half-way point of the novel, I couldn’t have predicted where it would end up. Deliciously cult-ish, dark and surprisingly touching, “The Family Upstairs” subverts the traditional mystery-thriller, blending together multiple genres. Don’t get me wrong, “The Family Upstairs” is still the perfect book to grab in between layovers, though at the same time, the mystery tropes are not overwrought. This attentive style and plot that Jewell has crafted will leave even a jaded mystery expert like myself guessing until the very end.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *