A Sickness In The Family Review

Straddling crime and horror, this graphic novel, a first stab at the medium for Scottish crime writer Denise Mina, follows the fortunes of the Usher family (yes, it’s a reference): maritally-struggling parents Tom and Biddy, their three children William, Amy and Sam and grandmother Martha. It’s teenage adoptee (and the only really sympathetic character) Sam, that’s the main protagonist – and seeing as the story is framed by his being interviewed in surroundings of increasingly less ambiguous grimness, we can guess quite early on that things don’t end well.

Events are thrown into action on Christmas day with the horrific double murder of the Ushers’ downstairs neighbours: a vile gangster and his abused Polish trophy wife. The introduction of these swiftly-dispatched characters form a prologue sufficiently gloomy to eliminate any hope of a happy ending, setting us up for a story that’s beyond merely dark but pitch-black.

When Martha suffers a fall and has a stroke early on in the novel, it’s only Sam that seems to care, abandoning his A-level studies to tend to his invalid grandmother while the rest of the family are wrapped up in their own personal problems, which, as Mina reveals gradually, are manifold. Oxford dropout William has a heroin habit, Tom and Biddy attend unsuccessful marriage counselling, Tom all the while aware of his wife’s serial adultery, and selfish Amy worries continually about the safety of her slice of the inheritance. All is not well beneath the surface of this initially seemingly happy family.

The sense of doom about things is palpable, and it’s only a matter of time before the body count begins to rise in the household, as members of the family are offed by an unknown killer. It’s interesting how Mina muddies the generic waters in her execution of the story: it’s unclear, due to elements of all three genres, whether we are dealing with a murder mystery, a slasher or a supernatural horror. This ambiguity makes it difficult to predict the outcome: depending on the prevalent genre of the novel we could be dealing with a killer inside the family (with all the talk of the inheritance an ample motive); a motiveless psychopath (which would explain the opening double murder); or dark forces at play (Sam’s internet research into the family home throws up the trial and murder of a local ‘witch’). This unpredictability makes ASINTF hard to stop reading, and it’s a concise enough read that it’s unlikely to take more than a couple of sittings, even for the short attention-spanned, to get to the hair-raising final twist.

While the narrative is in the hands of a master storyteller, it would be for nothing without an equally deft hand behind the graphic element, and so Antonio Fuso deserves equal praise for his pitch-perfect work. Fuso’s style is impressionistic, full of angles and jagged lines, which, coupled with his noir-ish use of light and shade, compliments the constant underlying menace of the story beautifully. The breathless dialogue-free frames that lead to the novel’s climax are a particular highlight.

Mina and Fuso’s first collaboration is a thoroughly gripping read, a strikingly original work that should make Mina’s next effort in the medium – should she choose to follow this up – something to look forward to.

Adam Richardson

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