I’m always delighted to find a new mystery novel that plays with the form, daring to have a bit of fun with the tropes we whodunit fans all know so well. Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders and his Hawthorne series do this beautifully, and now here comes Peter Swanson with a new book that works as a standard mystery, a love letter to some of the classics, and a winkingly self-referential send-up of the genre.
The narrator is Malcolm Kershaw, co-owner of a Boston mystery bookstore. He stopped reading mysteries a while back, but “I keep up with the trends,” he says. “I am well aware that Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn has changed the industry, that unreliable narrators are suddenly popular… The thing is, and maybe I’m biased by all those years I’ve spent in fictional realms built on deceit, I don’t trust narrators any more than I trust the actual people in my life. We never get the whole truth, not from anybody.” Hmm… is that an indication that perhaps Malcolm isn’t being 100% truthful with us?
Before he gave up on the genre—he now sticks to history and poetry—Malcolm wrote a piece for his store’s blog called “Eight Perfect Murders,” in which he wrote about “the cleverest, the most ingenious, the most foolproof (if there is such a thing) murders in crime fiction history.” FBI agent Gwen Mulvey tracks Malcolm down at his store, because she’s convinced that a serial killer is using the books on Malcolm’s list as a sort of blueprint, starting with Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders. Malcolm doesn’t know any of the victims, but when one of his bookstore’s regular customers is killed, he begins to suspect that the murderer is trying to tie him to the crimes.
This is a fiendishly clever novel which, by necessity, contains a lot of spoilers for other works—if you’ve never read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and don’t know whodunit, be forewarned that the killer’s identity is revealed herein—but if you’re a mystery addict, you’ll doubtless enjoy the ride. There’s some nostalgic appeal as well; a lot of us long-time readers first discovered the genre thanks to mystery bookstores like Old Devils, the one Malcolm owns, and sadly, most of them have gone out of business in recent years (including Boston-area mainstays Kate’s Mystery Books and Spenser’s). Old Devils’ continued existence is explained away by the fact that Malcolm’s partner is a bestselling mystery author who thought it would be fun to own a bookstore.
Meanwhile, the real-life mystery bookstores that are still hanging on have largely done so because of their live events, and with author tours and in-person book clubs on hold because of the pandemic, it’s likely that more will be closing for good in the coming months. If you have a favorite mystery bookstore that is still in business (I like Poisoned Pen, which is doing tons of virtual events), may I suggest ordering Eight Perfect Murders through their online store?