Everyone is listening. Cafe waiters are eavesdropping from behind their ordering pads; baristas over the hiss of the espresso machine. Cleaners are mopping up secrets in house after house. Uber drivers can’t help but overhear; pedicurists too. And loyal hairdressers have decades of stories to share – all that tactile intimacy.

In Liane Moriarty’s new novel, Apples Don’t Fall, a mystery unfolds in snippets and whispers – a suspected murder, a missing body – but every witness has their own story: exams to sit, bills to pay, Tinder dates to preen for, the loneliness of widowhood. They hear what they hear because, in service jobs, they’re treated as invisible – as inert and functional as furniture. Our loose-lipped cast might not notice them, but Moriarty sure does.

Moriarty has an eye for gentrified grotesqueries: retail hubs trussed up as Tuscan villages (“at least the fake cobblestones didn’t catch heels like real cobblestones”); memoir classes in which women in “tailored pants and pearl earrings” craft tales of woe on creamy new stationery; leafy streets patrolled by designer dogs, and double strollers as expensive as cars. There’s a reason she’s the mordant queen of Sydney suburbia.

Until this novel – her ninth – I knew Moriarty’s books only by reputation and buzz from the prestige television adaptations of Big Little Lies and Nine Perfect Strangers: Nicole Kidman in various shades of aloof. When the galley of Apples Don’t Fall landed on my doorstep with its 500 pages of wallop, I was primed for a tale of lily-white affluence and its discontents: weaponised gossip, class frictions and the occasional untimely death; a harbour view, perhaps. Moriarty’s trademarks are certainly present, but there’s something else in here – something quiet and clenched – that’s overshadowed by her book’s more salacious trimmings.

In a neighbourhood of “nicely modulated voices” and well-tended gardens, aspiring grandmother and fearsome doubles player Joy Delaney has gone missing. Her husband Stan is suspiciously scratched-up. He blames a vengeful hedge, but the neighbours – ears ever-pricked – heard the pair arguing the night before she disappeared. For more than 40 years, Joy and Stan ran the local tennis school (“Joy made the money and Stan made the stars”) while they lustily produced four enormous, tennis-crazy children (now embittered, tennis-averse adults). But the couple have recently retired and, relieved of all their hectic obligations, their marriage has curdled. “Maybe every marriage had secret cracks that could turn into chasms,” Moriarty ponders. Or maybe the signs were there all along.

The Delaney family is a magnificent snarl of allegiances and grievances, unsalved wounds and intergenerational chafing. There’s churlish, hulking Stan, who once unearthed a Grand Slam champion, only to be cast aside when the kid hit the big time; and the ever-fractious sibling quartet – blue-haired Amy, morally slippery Troy, pathologically laid-back Logan, and Brooke with an e – not one of them a tennis prodigy, nor able to forget it. Joy is forever in the middle, her brood’s peacekeeper-in-chief. She could have made it to Wimbledon, but sacrificed her talent on the altar of family.

When Moriarty plonks us down at the dinner table, her pages are pyrotechnic. The writer turns a Father’s Day lunch into a deliciously theatrical centrepiece – a buffet of bruised egos. There’s Olympic-level bickering, a chocolate brownie duel. Every short Delaney fuse is lit and fizzing, and we can only wait to see who will detonate first. All that emotional shrapnel whizzing past our ears. But farce slips into domestic horror: as the days turn to weeks with no sign of Joy, the children must grapple with the hardening probability that their father has murdered their mother. “Sometimes when she pulled out a funny memory from their shared childhood,” the eldest Delaney daughter, Amy, reflects, “it turned out to be not so funny after all.”

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If Moriarty had kept the aperture narrowed – a portrait of a family riven by new suspicions and old rivalries – Apples Don’t Fall would have been a subtle tale of everyday violence. The ways women are incrementally eroded; the ways men are taught to harness their rage. All the ecstasies and cruelties of elite sports (not to mention its striving parents). But Moriarty wraps her family in a glossier mystery: a young woman arrives on the Delaney doorstep in the dead of night, bruised, bloodied and in need of shelter. Grand revelations brew; ornate revenge.

It’s a restless, rambling subplot that relies, dispiritingly, on a wearying and pernicious shock tactic: a vixenish schemer who cries wolf, faking her claim of intimate partner violence (“another girl’s awful truth at the heart of her awful lie”). That Moriarty’s characters are well aware of the trope – and trust their interloper more readily because of it – makes it all the more grotesque and lazy.

Apples Don’t Fall ends up feeling indulgently overgarnished, like some ornate cafe breakfast that’s designed to be Instagrammed rather than eaten. It’s all perfectly readable, but it’s hard not to want something more from someone so scabrously smart. “If Joy had been young and beautiful,” Moriarty writes, “the street would’ve been crawling with reporters.” As she’s a woman in her 60s, the case simmers along as a minor neighbourhood scandal. It’s hard not to feel, in so clumsily grafting Joy’s story to a young, titillating stranger, Moriarty has done exactly the same thing.

Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty is out now through Pan Macmillan

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