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Book review: “Eight Perfect Murders” by Peter Swanson

As it starts, Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson seems to be a kind of cozy for mystery lovers.

It centers on an internet blog list that bookstore owner Malcolm Kershaw posted back in 2004, titled “Eight Perfect Murders” and listing seven novels and a playscript with such undetectable crimes.  Among the eight are Malice Aforethought by Anthony Berkeley Cox, The A.B.C. Murders by Agatha Christie, Deathtrap by Ira Levin and Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith.

Any mystery fan is likely to be familiar with at least some of the eight and probably many if not all of them. That’s where the initial piquancy of Swanson’s novel come from. 

You pick up Eight Perfect Murders because you’re a mystery fan and you want to see how these great works from the genre play into the plot of this 2020 novel.  That becomes evident in the first few pages when FBI agent Gwen Mulvey shows up on Malcolm’s Boston doorstep to ask him about his long-ago blog post.

A stand-in?

Someone out there appears to be using Malcolm’s list to carry out a series of copycat killings, and Gwen wants Malcolm’s help.

So, here we are, we mystery fans, at the start of this story, and it seems that Malcolm and Gwen will spend the next couple hundred pages trying to track down the killer with Malcolm using his well-honed expertise as a mystery reader and bookstore owner to spot bookish clues and act as something of a real detective. 

In this way, Malcolm will be a stand-in for the mystery fans reading the book who have their own similar expertise and who, through him, will try to help Gwen solve the case.

No dice.

Twisting in on itself

Quickly, Swanson’s plot takes one twist and then another and then is twisting in on itself in ways that are mind-boggling. 

No question, Eight Perfect Murders is a page-turner.  No question, Swanson does weave through his story the plots of the eight novels on Malcolm’s list.  (In fact, there are a lot of spoilers in Swanson’s book for anyone who hasn’t read one or more of the books on the list.)

No question, I was eager to get to the book’s ending and the solution of the crime (crimes).

Alas, from my point of view, Swanson’s ending lacked the punch and pizzazz of the rest of his book. 

A lot of cold craziness

Other readers might react differently, but, for me, the end wasn’t as startling as it should have been with such a well-written story proceeding it.

Part of that might have been because of the myriad plot twists that had led up to the final pages. So much happens that things get a bit confusing.

And part might have been because of Swanson’s need to weave into his story the plots of those eight earlier works.  That’s a lot of plots to keep straight.

Also, there was a coldness to the killings in Eight Perfect Murders that was off-putting for me.  And it has to be said that none of the main characters, even Malcolm, was all that attractive.  The reader was left, it seems to me, with no one to identify with. 

Actually, the one I ended up identifying with was Tess, the wife of Malcolm’s friend, because she was an innocent who found herself in the middle of a lot of craziness.

That’s how I felt by the book’s conclusion, like someone who had walked into a lot of cold craziness.

Patrick T. Reardon

4.26.22

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