BookBrowse Reviews Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson

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Eight Perfect Murders

by Peter Swanson

Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson X
Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2020, 288 pages

    Paperback:
    Jan 2021, 288 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Jordan Lynch
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With an ever-increasing body count and a race to find a killer before they strike again, Eight Perfect Murders is a page-turning thriller that will keep you hooked until every last secret is revealed.

Malcom Kershaw is a long-time employee and now part-owner of the Old Devils Mystery Bookstore in Boston. Although he loves his job and his shop does well with mystery aficionados, Mal isn't exactly well-known outside of his literary circle. But he is sought out by the FBI when a string of murders begins to show a particular pattern: the causes of death match those from the plots of books on Mal's old blog list titled "Eight Perfect Murders." Each of these books features a seemingly impossible murder, and as the so-called expert, Mal finds himself squarely in the middle of the case. As the body count rises, it becomes clear that he and the killer have some sort of connection, one that threatens to reveal Mal's own secrets and sends him down a dark path of paranoia and lies. As the line between fiction and reality blurs for Mal, Eight Perfect Murders investigates just how far someone might go to commit the perfect murder.

This is a murder mystery for fans of the genre, and it's also an ode to book lovers. Mal's narration, and the dialogue between the characters, revolve around books—mysteries, current authors, characters' favorite reads and analysis of the motives behind famous fictional murders. Of course, these latter discussions are largely focused on the murders in the books on Mal's list with an eye towards figuring out which plot the killer may make use of next. As these discussions do become fairly in-depth, it should be noted that there are extensive spoilers for the books on the list, including the solutions to the impossible crimes. In the creation of Mal's list, Swanson brings together a number of very different types of mystery novels that are all tied together by the fantastic nature of their plots, and tracking the cleverness of the killer as they recreate the murders is both intriguing and shocking.

The slow reveal of Mal's own secrets increases the shock factor. As more and more people are found dead, the past eats at Mal, and he begins to contemplate how his actions may have pushed the killer into their current murder spree. Unreliable narrators have been a popular trend in recent mysteries, and Swanson brilliantly writes Mal initially as an ordinary bookseller willing to help the FBI, who evolves into a man whose own rage, envy and knowledge of murder mysteries may have led him to do something unthinkable. There's a bit of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde feel to Mal, and it's interesting to see those opposing sides play out as he hunts for the killer while simultaneously working to hide his own secrets from the FBI.

It's this conflict within Mal that keeps the pace of the story moving. There's an important reason why he includes such a deep level of detail in the narrative, but this reason is not revealed until the very end of the book. As such, there are several chapters in which the details slow the story down, and it takes a new revelation to pick things up again. However, much like Hercule Poirot, Mal is laying out all the pieces so that they can be properly put together later, and for people who haven't read the novels on his list—such as the FBI agents—the details are necessary to find the killer.

Eight Perfect Murders is truly written for fans of murder mysteries. The inclusion of many classics of the genre will please superfans, while also giving more casual readers some books to add to their to-read lists. Just remember: there are many spoilers. Although mystery lovers may be able to pick up on many of the clues, Swanson expertly subverts the usual tropes to create a haunting conclusion that harkens back to one of Agatha Christie's most famous novels. The book stands out among the current field of domestic dramas and foreign detectives as a celebration of the genre.

And in case you want to read them first, these are the books from Mal's list of "Eight Perfect Murders":

  • The Red House Mystery (1922) by A.A. Milne
  • Malice Aforethought (1931) by Anthony Berkeley Cox
  • The A.B.C. Murders (1936) by Agatha Christie
  • Double Indemnity (1943) by James M. Cain
  • Strangers on a Train (1950) by Patricia Highsmith
  • The Drowner (1963) John D. MacDonald
  • Deathtrap (1978) by Ira Levin
  • The Secret History (1992) by Donna Tartt

Reviewed by Jordan Lynch

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in March 2020, and has been updated for the February 2021 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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