The love of money, says St Paul, is the root of all evil. The Snakes makes much the same point. The novel is Sadie Jones’s fourth, and the first to be set in the present. It’s the story of Bea and Dan, a nice young couple who are struggling to make the repayments on their mortgage. She’s a psychotherapist with an outsize social conscience; he’s a trainee estate agent who yearns to be an artist.
Desperate for a break, they decide to spend their meagre savings on a three month unpaid holiday in Europe. The first stop is in Burgundy, at the rundown hotel run by Bea’s brother, Alex, who has recently returned from three months drying out in the Priory. There are snakes and rat-traps in the attic, and no guests in the seven bedrooms, which are named after the Deadly Sins. To make matters much, much worse, the parents of Alex and Bea turn up out of the blue. The monstrous Griff, their father, has made countless millions from shady property deals.
Bea loathes her parents (with justification) and hasn’t seen them for years. Dan, perhaps rather implausibly in the age of Google, previously had no idea that his in-laws were quite so filthy rich. Griff sets out to lure him into his power.
An unexpected crime tips the game of unhappy families into nightmare. The chilly procedures of a French criminal investigation engulf them all. Griff uses his money to insulate them from the worst of it but Dan — who is mixed race and lacks the self-confidence that wealth gives — is particularly vulnerable. The story wraps up with further crimes, described in agonising and effective detail. Shocking though these are, their operations seem as arbitrary, impersonal and unavoidable as Fate’s.
It’s a pity that there’s so much overt preaching in this book. Bea in particular comes across as borderline sanctimonious. The plot is too obviously in thrall to its theme, the evil of wealth without responsibility. The story also has curious echoes of the Divine Comedy: but in this case the fun starts in heaven and ends in hell.
Sadie Jones is such an unobtrusively good writer that, for most of the time, this doesn’t matter. She knows how to construct a narrative of great emotional power. Her prose is crisp and precise, studded with spiky observations. Nevertheless, a novel is capable of preaching all the more effectively if it is not so obviously a morality tale.