If ever there was a previous mystery novel that summoned plots of unsolved homicides from yesteryear’s classic thrillers to unravel its own whodunnit, none comes to mind. That’s what Peter Swanson cleverly pulls off in his new, engagingly original psychological suspense novel “Eight Perfect Murders” (William Morrow, 288 pp., ★★★ out of four).
The story’s narrator, Malcolm Kershaw, is the co-owner of the Old Devil’s Bookstore in Boston, a mecca for mystery fans. Everything’s routine there until one snowy day when FBI Special Agent Gwen Mulvey shows up asking questions. Years earlier, Mal had posted on the bookstore’s blog a list titled “Eight Perfect Murders” that summarized brilliant strategies of unsolved murders from eight crime fiction classics. Mulvey thinks a serial killer is re-creating those perfect murders.
“It’s almost as though the murderer is testing these books in real life,” she theorizes.
Several of the murders may be copycatting Agatha Christie’s “The A.B.C. Murders” from the list. Mulvey asks Mal to examine homicide reports possibly mirroring some of the list’s other ingenious plots: Patricia Highsmith’s “Strangers on a Train,” Ira Levin’s “Deathtrap,” A.A. Milne’s “The Red House Mystery,” Anthony Berkeley Cox’s “Malice Aforethought,” James M. Cain’s “Double Indemnity,” John D. MacDonald’s “The Drowner” and Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History.”
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Mal figures the FBI views him as a detective fiction expert but also potentially as one of the killer’s targets – maybe even the killer himself. So while Mal helps Mulvey, he’s not exactly forthcoming, leading them into a suspenseful cat-and-mouse investigation.
Without revealing too much, let’s just say Mal harbors some secrets. So does every other character (including Nero, the bookstore cat) in this multilayered mystery that brims with duplicity, betrayal and revenge – all bubbling slowly to the surface in increasingly bloody pages.
The author of five novels – including “Before She Knew Him,” “All the Beautiful Lies” and the award-winning “The Kind Worth Killing” – Swanson has a bent for revenge and murder. Fans won’t be disappointed.
Mild-mannered, stoic Mal proves to be an unreliable narrator. As the plot unfolds, we learn that Mal’s wife, Claire, died five years earlier in a car crash; that, growing up, Mal buried himself in books while his father abused his mother; and that loner Mal recently gave up reading mysteries for poetry.
Swanson plants clues and misdirections throughout. Not only does he make many literary references, he analyzes the perfect murders’ storylines. While he’s spinning this compelling murder story that will keep you on edge and guessing, he’s also spoiling those eight classics for anyone who hasn’t read them. Swanson warns readers up front.
Some mystery lovers will savor how slow the suspense builds with Mal’s no-hurry, low-adrenaline narrative. Others, not so much. This is a cerebral mystery, more dialogue than action. Although the twisted finale isn’t all that unexpected or climactic, when it comes to perfect murders, it’s the process that matters, not so much the end, right?