Book Review | Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson

Malcolm Kershaw runs an independent bookshop, Old Devils, in Boston, specialising in mystery fiction. It’s the depths of winter – an oppressive cold and dark pervades the novel – when an FBI agent comes to his door and begins to question him on a blog post he wrote for the bookshop several years ago. His piece was ‘Eight Perfect Murders’, a write up of the murders in fiction that are the hardest to crack. Near enough ‘perfect’ as can be.

It appears that someone has taken his piece as a challenge – copycat murders from this list are appearing across Massachusetts and the surrounding areas. The FBI start to take quite an interest in him, utilising his expertise in mystery fiction to help him piece together the puzzle. The only problem is that his own personal history is inextricably linked with these deaths. He’s not a suspect, but he isn’t not a suspect. Whatever is going on here, there’s no doubt that it is personal. Somebody has an axe to grind, and he doesn’t know where it’ll fall next.

Swanson has a laconic style, one that can be off-putting at first, but that ultimately works as a reflection of his twisted protagonists. Even in first-person narration, there is a sense that the reader is being kept at arm’s length – and then Swanson masterfully breaks the fourth wall. Reader, he tells us, not all is at it seems, and the nature of his duplicity begins to be revealed.

‘A line of poetry went through my mind—someone is dead, even the trees know it.’

The premise of this book is solid: interweaving other mystery greats in a clever, meta way that adds multiple layers to the narrative. Spoilers abound, so be warned, but this book is a homage to the genre that will especially appeal to mystery aficionados.

‘Books are time travel. True readers all know this. But books don’t just take you back to the time in which they were written; they can take you back to different versions of yourself.’

Unfortunately, it feels at times that the book rests too heavily on this clever premise, and fails to build out a substantial plot or structure in its own right. It’s a slow burn in a novel that really needs to be tauter, with a greater build-up of suspense and a more of a teasing out of plot points and characters to earn the reader’s investment in the narrative. Embedding classic mystery greats within the novel only serves to throw into sharp relief that this, unfortunately, isn’t one of them. It is, nevertheless, an entertaining concept, even if not exploited to its full potential.

‘I truly imagined that my adult existence would be far more booklike than it turned out to be. I thought, for example, that there would be several moments in which I got into a cab to follow someone. I thought I’d attend far more readings of someone’s will, and that I’d need to know how to pick a lock, and that any time I went on vacation (especially to old creaky inns or rented lake houses) something mysterious would happen. I thought train rides would inevitably involve a murder, that sinister occurrences would plague wedding weekends, and that old friends would constantly be getting in touch to ask for help, to tell me that their lives were in danger. I even thought quicksand would be an issue. I was prepared for all this in the same way that I wasn’t prepared for the soul-crushing minutiae of life. The bills. The food preparation. The slow dawning realization that adults live in uninteresting bubbles of their own making. Life is neither mysterious nor adventurous.’

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Read if you enjoyed: And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie, Grist Mill Road by Christopher Yates 

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