By Kerrie O'Brien
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Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone sounds like the name of a blockbuster movie. It’s the clever title of Sydney-based author Benjamin Stevenson’s bestselling book, inspired by his love of crime novels – and his side-hustle as a comedian.
The 34-year-old sets out rules of the action early on, framing the mystery solving as a game, a team effort between the reader and his narrator, who “breaks the fourth wall” as they say in movies, speaking directly to the reader. The novel references many tropes common to the genre, simultaneously sending them up and paying homage. After a bidding war for the rights, an HBO adaptation by Bruna Papandrea’s Made Up Stories is in development.
Sydney based author Benjamin Stevenson.Credit: James Brickwood
The title Everyone On This Train Is A Suspect, released next week, doesn’t sound quite as catchy, but riffs on those same principles – and given the success of Family, it has a guaranteed following.
Narrator Ernest returns, a character Stevenson says he loves. “Inevitably whatever I write would come out sounding like him. When you have a character that is speaking to you in that way, that’s telling you [that] you’re onto something good,” he says.
“He’s nice to write because he is truthful, I find him quite truthful to himself on the page. He has nice vulnerabilities as well, some great stuff that is humanising in a way that those classics don’t really go into.”
Exactly what genre Stevenson’s books fit into is tricky. It’s not straightforward, but it is in demand. “It’s cool to see that kind of light, cosy thriller that I am writing, that classic Golden Age-style mystery is popular,” he says, adding it seems to sit alongside Richard Osman (Thursday Murder Club) and Lucy Foley (The Book of Lost and Found and many more), and films such as Knives Out.
“Everything comes in its time and certainly, I’ve been very lucky to be in the midst of a few good moments in Australian literature.”
The exponential growth of interest in crime via podcasts, and more recently TV shows such as Only Murders in the Building, has also fuelled the interest.
Stevenson, right, and his identical twin brother James, appear in The Stevenson Project, a musical comedy act.Credit: Monica Pronk
Long before all that, in his early teens, Stevenson was drawn to Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle; The Hound of the Baskervilles is a favourite. A big fan of films such as Scream, cinema also influenced his writing; he argues Scream owes a debt to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, so there’s a cross-pollination going on.
When you’re pastiche-ing something, you have to understand and love the genre but not be afraid to make fun of it, he says. If you break the rules, people will let you know about it.
Despite the fact he’d been published many times and toured the comedy circuit for years, Stevenson was regularly described as an overnight success when Family was released in 2022.
His first two novels, Greenlight, shortlisted for the Ned Kelly Award for Best Debut Crime Fiction in 2018 and then Either Side of Midnight, feature the same detective and are written as straight murder-mysteries, in a gritty, Aussie noir tone.
“Every crime writer in Australia owes a debt to Jane Harper for kicking the door down for us,” he says, adding that Peter Temple, Emma Viskic and Chris Hammer all played a part in fuelling interest in Australian crime.
TAKE 7: THE ANSWERS ACCORDING TO BENJAMIN STEVENSON
Back then, he worried that being a comedian and a crime writer would mean he wasn’t taken seriously. “So I tried really hard not to be funny. But then when I was writing this book I thought I was leaving one of my skill sets behind.”
Writing Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone during COVID-19, the third of a three-book deal with Penguin, Stevenson was determined not to die wondering. “If I don’t do everything I want with this book, I will regret it,” he says now of his approach. “We all have this desk drawer, metaphorically, even if it’s just the back of your mind. It’s all the ideas a writer has had that they think might be too hard … Every idea that I’ve wanted to do, but I’d put aside, I used them in this book,” he says. “I wanted to write something completely different to anything I’d read before.”
‘I wanted to be published by the time I was 30, which I achieved. I scraped it in, and I realise now how ludicrous that goal was.’
When writing the final scenes, he thought “I really like this”, and for the first time entertained the prospect that maybe it would work. Even so, the reaction has been beyond his highest expectations.
Stevenson has been a stand-up comic for many years – “I went into comedy because it was easier to get an instant reaction” – and performs with his identical twin brother James, their act often featuring themes around family and siblings. “A lot of our comedy is us on stage bickering – like if Lano and Woodley were related, that’s sort of our vibe,” he says. “Brotherhood gets a run in all my books. My brother has told me several times he is a bit disappointed he keeps getting killed off, so I’m trying to be nice to him in this one.”
His day job is as a literary agent for Curtis Brown. He says the best advice for any writer is to write what you want to read, “that’s the only way you can show that you love it”. “If you’re writing something that you think will sell well or what you think someone else would like to read, you can tell.”
As well as a direct submission process through Curtis Brown and events such as writers festivals, Stevenson says he looks for talent everywhere: in journalism, short stories, essays and theatre. He wants to find people who have a novel in them but don’t know it, and those who may have been scared to make that step.
“I had this sort of goal that I wanted to be published by the time I was 30, which I achieved. I scraped it in, and I realise now how ludicrous that goal was.”
Nearly a decade ago, Stevenson performed at the Melbourne Comedy Festival for 20 days straight; he worked in Sydney from 9am to 4pm, caught a 5pm flight to Melbourne and did a show at 9.30pm, celebrated until arguably too late in the piece, then headed back the next morning at 6am.
“Like I said, I don’t like saying no to any opportunity. I knew that I wanted to do both of these things. Conventional wisdom is why don’t you pick the one you want to do more? My version is well, why don’t I just do both and see what happens,” he says with a laugh.
“That’s why I’ve got this lovely position. I do comedy, write books, have these television opportunities and work as a literary agent. I always think I am doing too much, and then I always enjoy them all, so I think, well, why wouldn’t I?”
Everyone On This Train Is A Suspect is out on October 17, published by Penguin Random House. The Stevenson Experience is at Comedy Republic on October 20 and 21 and the Comedy Store Sydney on October 27.
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