The Marie Claire review of Oyinkan Braithwaite’s 2017 novel My Sister, the Serial Killer calls it, “The wittiest and most fun murder party you’ve ever been invited to.” Murder party does not yet officially exist as a literary genre. But it really should.
What are murder party novels? Let’s start with what they are not: they are not murder mysteries. In a murder mystery, the focal question is who did it. In a murder party, the question is how to get away with it. Yes, in a murder party novel, we as the readers are asked to sympathize with the murderer.
And it’s surprisingly easy. In the murder party novels I know best, My Sister, the Serial Killer, Helene Tursten’s 2018 An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good,and Jesse Q. Sutanto’s 2021 Dial A for Aunties, the murderers are all rather lovable people. Ayoola, the knife-wielding serial killer in My Sister, might be a sociopath, but she’s a friendly one, with a bubbly personality, who designs gowns for her mother and sister, laughs at social media posts on her phone, remembers to bring them gifts from trips abroad (even if she happens to kill her latest boyfriend during that trip) and “is incapable of practical underwear.” (Braithwaite, 2017, p. 19). Maud, the inventive and resourceful killer in An Elderly Lady, is a very refined and ladylike old woman enjoying her peaceful retirement—when she’s not being driven mad by pesky neighbors who really need a good murder or two. And Meddelin Chan, the protagonist and accidental killer of Dial A for Aunties, is one of the most likable and relatable characters I’ve ever encountered, kind and gentle and rather crushed by her loving but overbearing family.
This dissonance—that we like murderers—is part of the humor that characterizes murder party novels. These are comedies, not tragedies, but comedies in a very lopsided and macabre way. In a murder party novel, there is humor in even the grimmest situation. Consider this passage from Dial A for Aunties, when Meddelin happens to glance out of a hotel window and spots her mother and aunts toting a cooler containing the corpse of the man she killed:
“…[M]ovement outside the window catches my eye.
Ho. Ly. Shit.
It’s Big Aunt, Ma, and Fourth Aunt, and they’re moving the cooler, staggering across the expansive lawn with it and—oh god—the cooler must’ve popped open at some point without them realizing it, because there is a fucking hand sticking out of it.
‘OH MY GOD!’ I scream.
Tom startles awake. ‘Wh-wha?’ he rasps, blinking around him and wincing. ‘My head.’” (Sutanto, 2021, p. 131).
Dial A for Aunties is a laugh a minute as Meddelin struggles to keep her bickering, batty aunts focused, reconnect with her old boyfriend, and avoid arrest as the corpse of the man she and her aunts accidentally killed circulates through a billionaire Chinese-Indo wedding at an exclusive California resort. Meddelin and her family are not evil or psychotic, even if they did accidentally suffocate a man to death: they are intensely relatable and sympathetic characters, complete with sisterly rivalries, personal fixations on tai chi or traditional Chinese medicine, and intense desires to own Gucci handbags, even as they’re carting a dead body around a hotel in a cooler.
This humorous dissonance extends to An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good, where the reader sympathizes greatly with Maud’s annoyance with her neighbors. Who hasn’t felt furious with those irritating, noisy, and thoughtless people next door? It’s when Maud takes murderous action—and then feels no guilt whatsoever—that we catch ourselves laughing at death, and sympathizing with a murderer. Our humor at the situation might be wrong, but it is irresistible.
My Sister, The Serial Killer explores this in even greater depth. The protagonist, Korede, is the sister of the serial killer, Ayoola. She is also Ayoola’s regular accomplice, repeatedly covering up the murders of Ayoola’s boyfriends. Even as she does so, Korede keeps asking herself whether this is the right thing to do (“I was tempted to pray, to beg that no door be opened as we journeyed from door to lift [carrying the corpse], but I am fairly certain that those are exactly the types of prayers He doesn’t answer.” (Braithwaite, 2017, p. 11). Korede also has to face up to the fact that the person she loves most in the world, her little sister, is a murderous sociopath. Love does not blind Korede to Ayoola’s faults, but even she is sometimes surprised by Ayoola’s blithe indifference to human life:
“She [Ayoola] doesn’t sense my presence—she has her back to me and is thrusting her hips from side to side, her bare feet stroking the white fur rug as she steps this way and that. Her movements are in no way rhythmical; they are the movements of someone who has no audience and no self-consciousness to shackle them. Days ago, we gave a man to the sea, but here she is, dancing.
I lean on the door frame and watch her, trying and failing to understand how her mind works.” (Braithwaite, 2017, p. 34).
Ayoola continues in her thoughtless but friendly sociopathy throughout the book, buying gifts for her family, designing gowns for her mother and sister, inviting Korede out to lunch, delighting in fashion and male attention, uploading pictures of food to Instagram and generally enjoying life. She is clearly a lot of fun to be around—when she isn’t knifing her lovers. The two sides of Ayoola—her cheerful friendliness versus her murderous insanity—contrast and highlight each other, and both vividly stand out as a result. In murder party novels, the perpetrator is always, emphatically, a human being.
Another theme in murder party novels is their focus on marginalized members of society. Maud is a retiree, condescended to and disregarded by younger, stronger people; Meddelin and her aunts are Asian immigrants in America; and Ayoola and Korede are unmarried women in the male-dominated society of modern Nigeria. These are people—significantly, all women—who are already fighting for a foothold in society, to have their voices heard, their ambitions respected. Murder party novels ask an important question: if society does not respect this individual, why should this individual respect society? What does this person owe a society that ignores, belittles or outright abuses them? Why shouldn’t they try to get away with murder if they can? Indeed, the protagonists of murder party novels often turn their marginalization to their own advantage: Maud uses her persona as a harmless, doddery old lady to hide her crimes; Meddelin plays on the white sheriff’s inability to tell Asians apart to impersonate a lawyer and spring her true love from custody; and Korede adopts her patriarchal society’s stereotype of a stupid, uneducated woman to avoid police questioning. These women are not just murderers; they are tricksters, and tricksters are not only appealing, but bring a much-needed subversive commentary on society’s injustices.
Murder party books also advocate a subversive morality. In An Elderly Lady, the needs of the individual are more important than the needs of society; in My Sister and Dial A, the wellbeing of the family is more important than the wellbeing of anyone outside it. These are not clear-cut certainties for our characters, however—except in An Elderly Lady, whose protagonist is a complete sociopath without any conscience. In My Sister and Dial A for Aunties, the protagonists both wrestle with the question of what is right, especially Korede. Should they admit murder, or report it, if doing so will harm themselves and those they love?
In murder party novels, the answer to that question is no. No, the protagonist should not own up to what she did, or she should not turn in her family member. At the murder party, duty to the family or the self is more important than duty to society, and love is more important than justice. Or, to put it into Korede’s words:
“There will never be another opportunity to confess my sins or absolve myself of the crimes of the past…or the future…[B]ecause Ayoola needs me; she needs me more than I need untainted hands.” (Braithwaite, 2017, pp. 222-223.)
And let’s face it: this is the attitude that most of us would take in real life. If our sister or niece or grandmother called us in the middle of the night asking for help moving a body, chances are good we would not turn her in. We’re more likely to help her move that corpse and then keep our mouths shut about it. Right or wrong, that’s what most of us would do. As Big Aunt says in Dial A: “‘Is what family do.’” (Sutanto, 2021, p. 114.) In the end, love triumphs over justice.
Let’s just hope we aren’t put to the test.
No one wants to get invited to a real murder party.
Braithwaite, O. (2017). My sister, the serial killer. Anchor Books: New York, NY.
Sutanto, J. Q. (2021). Dial a for aunties. PT Karya Hippo Makmur: Berkley, NY.
Tursten, H. (2018). An elderly lady is up to no good. Soho Crime: New York, NY.