Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Caimh McDonnell has always had the talent of dealing with death from a humorous perspective, and in The Final Game, his latest standalone novel, he returns to form with a plot centred on a recently-deceased woman, Dorothy Graham. Though she is gone from this world, she devised a competition for her relatives to engage in to determine who the inheritance will belong to, as well as having preemptively hired a detective agency to solve the mystery of her own murder.
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Caimh McDonnell Brings Together a Fiendish Family
Every family has its own complex dynamics at play, but it seems the richer they become, the greater the depths of depravity its members are willing to sink to. In Caimh McDonnell‘s new standalone novel, The Final Game, he brings together the sort of family for which limits are a mere suggestion rather than a guiding moral principle… the sort of family whose hatred and dysfunction can ultimately lead to murder.
The story begins by introducing us to the recently-deceased Dorothy Graham, best-known before her demise as old, rich, eccentric, and hated by many other members of her own family. The reading of her will is enough to bring her step-grandchildren together, and needless to say, it holds a surprise none of them are happy about.
Before passing on from this world, Dorothy devised a part-clever, part-bizarre competition for her relatives to engage in against each other. The winner will get their hands on the money. What’s more, a production company was paid to broadcast the whole thing live on the internet for the entire world to witness.
There are also two figures in this competition who stand out from the rest, being largely unrelated to Dorothy and having no opinion of her as a person: Paul with his on-and-off girlfriend Brigit. Together they run the MCM Investigations detective agency, and Dorothy has entered them into the competition with a secret task: to solve the mystery of her own murder. Neither of them is thrilled with the context, but the money is good, and after all, the dead should not be disappointed.
Meanwhile, a retired Garda Inspector, Jimmy Stewart, finds himself on a collision course with this whole charade when the opportunity comes to take up some detective work once again. If he had known where it would lead him, or that it would partner him up with the bumbling Phil Nellis, nephew of a man he once threw into prison, he would have definitely stayed retired for good.
A Spectrum of the Despicable in The Final Game
As many approaches to writing dark humour as there might be, in my opinion its success rests first and foremost on the shoulders of all the characters, from the protagonists to the one-time passers-by. Ultimately, their thoughts, actions, dialogues and depictions are what breathes the spirit of comedy into a book, and it seems to me Caimh McDonnell shares this point of view, at least to a certain extent.
None of the characters in this book feel like they’ve been written in as an afterthought or with the mere purpose of filling a necessary role. They’re all living and breathing entities in the world they inhabit, connected to it through their extensive interpretation of themselves and their environments. While some of the characters do indeed steal the show, I feel safe in saying none of them are weak links.
Before talking about the main characters, I would like to direct some attention to a particular group of characters which caught my eye more than the others: Dorothy’s relatives, all of them safely nestled in their own levels on the spectrum of reprehensible behaviour. They’re all imbued with a good dose of humour, but apart from this they also often serve as various models for all the ways in which a family can be dysfunctional and its members hold grudges against each other.
As a matter of fact, I think it’s safe to say most of the characters in this novel aren’t exactly kind, noble or likeable. This task falls on our four living protagonists, Paul, Brigit, Jimmy and Phil. All of them imperfect in their own ways, they nevertheless stay standing as bastions of common sense and humanity for us to find shelter in from the madness of the rest of the cast.
In particular, I enjoyed the interplay between Jimmy and Phil, their natures consistently clashing against each other and their incompetence often amplified by a collective ineptitude. Though bitter in and of themselves, their failures are often redeemed with successful breakthroughs, and like most things in this book, veiled with a layer of intelligent humour.
Murderers and Belly Laughs
Great and fleshed out as the characters might be, they are still in need of a proper story to drive them along into full realization, and the plot of The Final Game offers plenty of chances to make it happen, starting with the murder mystery itself. Though sometimes this thread of the plot does take a back seat to whatever events might be happening, it’s one we never really lose sight of, constantly being pushed to observe the little details to try and solve the mystery before Caimh McDonnell does it for us.
Watching the different parties leading their own investigations from different angles is enthralling, especially since the pace is, for the most part, fairly quick. We seldom stop learning new things about our limited cast of suspects, and as someone who thoroughly enjoys the murder mystery genre, I found some of the twists and revelations to have been truly surprising and unexpected.
While we are busy trying to solve Dorothy’s murder (at least, as far as her opinion on the case goes) we are also treated to the extensive and often hilarious competition she has devised for her family to be tortured with, and I have to say, it defied my expectations quite a bit with its originality. All the little challenges they have to compete in against each other progressively derail into the realm of the utterly ridiculous.
In particular, the sequences featuring Paul and Brigit amidst the other competitors take the cake in terms of laugh-out-loud slapstick-style comedy, which mind you, is much more difficult to accomplish in written than in acted form. Caimh McDonnell has a real talent specifically for writing humour in a way which can be easily pictured, a huge part of what makes the whole thing work.
Additionally, the competition works in terms of its humour because of the contrast it provides with Jimmy and Phil’s storyline, being a cacophony of bright, flashing circus lights to their flickering candle. The two storylines bounce and play off of each other’s drastically opposite structures, making them both a real pleasure to follow until they finally merge into one and bring the whole show to a close with a memorable bang.
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The Final Verdict
The Final Game by Caimh McDonnell is a practically flawless story masterfully combining elements of the dark humour and murder mystery genres to present a unique plot offering an in-depth exploration of a particularly rotten family.
If you’ve enjoyed Caimh McDonnell’s previous writings (such as the Bunny McGarry series) or are simply in search of a novel mixing crime, family and intelligently-tailored humour in the same bowl, then I have no doubt you’ll fall in love with this book.
Caimh McDonnell is an Irish full-time author as well as a former professional stand-up comedian and television writer. His work on British TV shows earned him a nomination for the BAFTA award, his debut novel A Man With One of Those Faces was nominated for best novel at the at the 2017 CAP awards, and I Have Sinned was nominated for the 2019 Kindle Storyteller Award.