“All families are strange closeup.”
This one line that comes almost 3/4 of the way through Denise Mina’s Vertigo Crime entry A Sickness in the Family says everything you need to know about the book. In fact, though I had been enjoying the story up to that point, that one line made my eyes stop dead and evaluate how eerily similar the doomed Usher family is to my own and so many others that I’m close to. While the story as a whole is still far fetched, it’s an interesting process to look at your family objectively and see how your supposed normalcy is really anything but.
That, more than anything else, is why I really enjoyed A Sickness in the Family. Despite the fantastic crime elements and grim deaths within the book, Mina really strikes a chord that will hit close to home for most readers, challenging them to pick apart their own personal lives.
That said, the setup of the book is engaging as well. The Ushers are your typical dysfunctional family, but when our story begins, they begin to be killed off one by one. Mina transforms the book into a mystery that asks us to choose one of two options: is it sibling rivalry to get the family inheritance, or is the house haunted from being built on the site of a famous witch burning in the 16th century? It’s a rather refreshing yarn that will leave you guessing to the end.
Mina uses an interesting technique to present the story in that it opens with our “main” character, Sam, the adopted son of the Usher family, narrating to somebody. The rest of the story takes place in the past, and Mina shows two significantly different versions of Sam; the one narrating that is hardened by all the events that took place, and the rather dough-eyed, studious and newly minted adult version of the main tale. In a stroke of genius, Mina is able to slowly transform the young Sam into the older, hardened version while cutting back and forth between the two. She lets the family’s demise be known to the reader (it’s on the back of the book) and uses it as a starting point, rather than a story beat.
Though that is pure skill, there are some things in the book that are a little harder to digest. Most of the family isn’t particularly likable, which isn’t so much a problem for the reader/character relationship as it is for the characters themselves. What I mean is, despite being family, I have no clue as to how any of these people stand each other. While Mina makes it clear that Sam was sort of the unwilling glue and the only morally decent person in the tale, it’s still a rather drastic leap of faith on our part to accept that this family is on speaking terms. My other issue is the ending, which is presented fantastically in execution, but the motivation behind it seems rather convenient.
Antonio Fuso does a serviceable job on art duties, delivering an intensely dark, sketchy presentation that suits the book’s pessimistic tone perfectly. There’s a nice touch in his panel borders being a bit wavy, as though drawn freehand, and his keen sense of light and dark adds an element of depth to A Sickness in the Family’s art that helps to underline the story Mina is telling. Fuso brings forth a minor problem in that many of his male characters look the same and may confuse some in certain scenes, but overall his work is a great addition to the Vertigo Crime line of original graphic novels.
There’s plenty of pure shock value and crime thriller to be found here, but the real triumph of this book is its ability to use these things to make the reader look inward and ask themselves one of the scariest questions imaginable: “what if this was my family?”