British,  Crime fiction

The Deaths by Mark Lawson

I came across The Deaths by Mark Lawson a few months ago, probably browsing at BookDepository. I thought the idea behind the book was amazing and, having not heard anything about neither the author, nor the book on Twitter, I emailed the publisher to ask if there were review copies available. Lucky me, there were and I was kindly sent one. Thank you, Picador, for your support.


From Goodreads:

Four families live in a beautiful stretch of English countryside in magnificent houses. They leave only to commute first-class to London for meetings, deals and theatre outings, or on family holidays to winter sun or half-term skiing.

But the money is running out in Britain and keeping up appearances isn’t easy. As tensions and relationships develop within this group of friends, an unthinkable act of violence destroys these lives. This horrific act opens the book, but ‘Lawson takes us through several hundred gripping, intricately plotted pages before we find out “whodunnit”.’ (Guardian)

The first thing that came to my mind when I started to read The Deaths was ‘Jonathan Franzen meets Desperate Housewives in England’. My experience reading Freedom was a very intense and very remarkable one. I enjoyed the deconstruction does of the American middle-class, but the story was so dark – and so well done – that I even felt physically uncomfortable and revolted while reading. The same thing happens with Lawson’s novel, except that he knows exactly when and where insert humour. It is a dark and very postmodern humour in that it exposes the flaws surrounding the characters’ lives the same way Desperate Housewives – or Family Guy in a more blunt way – does. Sometimes the characters’ worries about appearances are so absurd that you can only laugh at someone who uses coffee pods to prove they are top at the local, upper-middle class hierarchy. But, isnt’ this the most effective way to criticise society? Isn’t humour the best tool, because it makes us associate criticism with laughter?

But The Deaths is much more than just a fun book. Lawson explores middle class so as to expose the many flaws, but also the many hardships of a social class that is being threatened by this economic crisis. Having said that, I had two major problems with Lawson’s book. One is that I do not consider powerful lawyers, CEOs and the like middle-class. I thought I was middle-class until I read of two-storey houses, posh supermarkets and holidays in the sun every three months. Maybe I am a product of two huge economic crisis, but this is almost high-class for me – if indeed, we insist on labelling people in classes. The other great problem was gender representation. The book focuses on four couples and only one of the wives has a proper job, ironically, she is also married to the man characterised as the most effeminate. Nothing wrong with this pairing, except that it makes you question why Lawson decided to create this couple as such, while the other, typically feminine – and very Desperate Housewives – wives are stay-at-home mothers. Alex Preston on his review for The Guardian also highlights Lawson’s gender-biased narrative by admitting: ‘The women are handled less well’.

However, despite this criticism, I did enjoy The Deaths. I actually gave it 4 stars at Goodreads because it makes a great reading. Lawson is not shy of including dislikable characters, actually, I think it is very difficult to sympathise with any of the so-called ‘The Eight’, but he still manages to you wanting more. Also, the crime that is referred in the title is unveiled as we get to know the characters: we are presented with deaths at one of the houses these couples live in, but we do not know which of them has been killed.

So, I would recommend The Deaths to anyone looking for a different type of crime novel. For me, crime fiction is one great tool to deconstruct and expose the flaws in our society. Sometimes those flaws are criminal and violent, and many other times, those flaws are the social, gender, age and geographical restrictions we live by, and they can be as harmful as a knife.




  • FictionFan

    Great review – I know Mark Lawson as a critic and arts commentator but haven’t read any of his books. I always think it’s quite brave for a critic to put their own work out there. The book sounds intriguing…

    I’m guessing you might be American, Elena? The middle-class in Britain is very different from the middle-class in America, and yes, over here doctors, lawyers, top businessmen would all count as middle-class (or upper middle-class if they were rich and well-educated enough). The upper classes are the aristocrats – titled, landowning or inherited wealth. It’s the price we pay for still having a Queen… 😉

    • Elena

      Hi, FictionFan! Thank you! I really hope this review shows how much I loved the book, even though I was not familiar at all with Lawson’s work as a critic.

      I am not American, I’m Spanish and I do realise what you say about the high classes being the aristocrats, but well, most of my family are doctors and lawyers, and we cannot afford to live like the people in this book. It felt a lot like watching Friends and wondering how they could afford that lifestyle, a luxury fiction allows us!

  • Leah

    This sounds like a really interesting book. As for the poor handling of gender, I wonder if, in wealthy families, women are statistically more likely to stay home. I’m not saying that would totally excuse the fact that three of the four women don’t work, but it would be useful to know.

    • Elena

      Leah, you just nailed it. While I was writing this review I really thought that maybe it wasn’t Lawson, maybe he was trying to make a point of women in these situations (social class, geography, generation etc). I really don’t know, but – no spoilers! – the ending made me realise that, well, there is not much room for professional and complex women.

  • bookarino

    This sounds like something that I’d be very interested to read. I enjoy books that break boundaries without necessarily abandoning the tools of that specific genre. I especially love how you mentioned the criticism through humour aspect – it made me all the more intrigued to read this!

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