“Eight Perfect Murders” by Peter Swanson

Eight Perfect MurdersI’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?

“Redhead by the Side of the Road” by Anne Tyler

Redhead by the Side of the RoadStop me if you’ve heard this one before: a middle-aged man, a resident of Baltimore, leads a strictly regimented and predictable existence, and then a stranger arrives and shakes it up. That character appears in almost every Anne Tyler novel; occasionally it’s a woman, but the fussy gentleman, a creature of habit who seems to have stepped out of a much-earlier decade, is definitely a Tyler staple. And Micah Mortimer, the protagonist of her latest book, Redhead by the Side of the Road, does not break the mold. “He lives alone; he keeps to himself; his routine is etched in stone,” she writes in the very first paragraph.

I have confessed before to being somewhat obsessed with Anne Tyler, and everything about her books fascinates me. As someone who lived in Baltimore for many years, I always pay special attention to the locations she mentions—legendary watering hole Swallow at the Hollow makes an appearance in Redhead, and Micah visits a client who lives in one of my old neighborhoods, Rodgers Forge. However, even a Tyler fanatic like myself must begrudgingly admit that Redhead is not one of the superior entries in her canon; it’s rather slight, and doesn’t really offer readers anything she hasn’t already done better in the past.

Still, when you’re living through a global pandemic, maybe you don’t want anything too different or earth-shattering, and here comes Tyler—now 78 years old!—with another novel about Baltimore loners and misfits. I was shocked to learn that the reclusive writer had apparently planned to tour the U.K. in support of Redhead; the trip was canceled due to the coronavirus, and Tyler told the Guardian that she felt relieved, but also culpable: “I remember I used to pray the school would burn down before a math test the next day. Yet if it had actually burned down I would have felt so guilty. So now I’m thinking, ‘Oh dear, be careful what you wish for!’”

In an interview with the BBC, she confessed,  “I always say when I’m starting a book, ‘This one’s gonna be different’. About halfway through, I say, ‘Oh, darn, it’s the same book over again.'” So she is at least self-aware. But there are always some little surprises to be found.

Judging by the title, I assumed that Tyler’s protagonist would encounter a woman with red hair, perhaps stranded due to a flat tire, or waiting for a bus that never came. However, it turns out that Micah goes for his daily jog without wearing his glasses (he “hated to feel them bobbing up and down on his nose”), and a fire hydrant on his route, “faded to the pinkish color of an aged clay flowerpot,” always appears to his myopic eyes to be a child or a petite adult with red hair.

I have stopped wearing my contact lenses—I read somewhere that it’s too dangerous these days to ever risk touching your eyes—and when I walked the dog today, in my non-prescription sunglasses, I almost changed my route when I spotted what I thought was a man lingering on a street corner. Then, as I approached, I realized someone had, incongruously, hung a white button-down shirt on a utility pole, creating a phantom businessman by the side of the road, an illusion of somebody dressed up to go work at an office job that no longer exists. I thought about Micah and his redhead, and then I wondered when I’d feel safe enough to walk right past a fellow pedestrian without worrying about keeping a six-foot distance between us.

“Fake Truth” by Lee Goldberg

Fake TruthI’ve always had a policy here at the blog that I do not review books written by my clients, but during the pandemic, all bets are off, so here is a disclaimer: I designed Lee Goldberg’s website and I also work on his newsletter and various other projects. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Lee is one of my favorite clients. He’s a really great guy as well as a brilliant raconteur.

So it’s possible that I’m not the most objective source when it comes to reviewing his novels, but I was actually a big fan of his work before I started working with him, and I happily devour his books as soon as they come out. My pre-ordered copy of Fake Truth dropped onto my Kindle on Monday night, and I started reading it immediately.

This is the third book in Goldberg’s Ian Ludlow series, about a thriller novelist whose seemingly-outlandish plots have a bizarre tendency to actually come true. It kicks off shortly after the events in the second Ludlow novel, Killer Thriller, in which Ian and his assistant Margo (who now works as an undercover agent for the CIA) foiled a plot to assassinate the presidents of France and the U.S. This time around, Ian is suffering from writer’s block and needs to come up with ideas for his next spy novel. What was supposed to be a simple research trip to Portugal winds up thrusting him and Margo into the middle of a nefarious Russian plot, and once again, he will have to rely on his skills as as storyteller to get himself—and the U.S. government—out of a jam.

These books have high body counts and plenty of action, but they’re hilariously tongue-in-cheek, kind of like the mid-period James Bond films Ian is constantly referencing. My favorite running gag in the series is “Hollywood and the Vine,” the atrocious TV cop show about “half-man, half-plant, all-cop” Charlie Vine, which Ludlow once wrote for. (Goldberg has plenty of experience scripting shows of various quality—sure, he penned several episodes of the beloved series “Monk,” but he also put in some time at “The New Adventures of Flipper.”) In Fake Truth, Ian finds himself back in the saddle, forced to write a script for the show which he describes as “a horrendous piece of shit”: “To get into the right frame of mind, he’d had to get into character and feel as unhappy and creatively unfulfilled as he had when he was writing and producing the show. That feeling still lingered, like the aftertaste of vomiting.”

Goldberg’s books are always so smoothly written and easy to read; even at a time when my attention span often feels fractured, I was able to speed through this novel and enjoy every last page. I even laughed out loud a few times. Fake Truth is a genuinely welcome diversion.

“The Lost Gargoyle of Paris” by Gigi Pandian

The Lost Gargoyle of ParisI haven’t been reading as many books as I normally do—in this post-pandemic era, my attention span seems better suited to old episodes of “The Great British Baking Show”—so when Gigi Pandian released a new novella in her popular Accidental Alchemist series, it seemed like the perfect diversion. Old familiar characters, and a book that can be read in just a couple of hours: hooray!

For those unfamiliar with the series, it’s kind of a fantasy/mystery hybrid, featuring alchemist Zoe Faust (born in 1676, but she doesn’t look a day over 28) and her living gargoyle sidekick, Dorian. I originally thought that seemed a bit too fanciful for my tastes, but I was a fan of Pandian’s Jaya Jones series, so I gave the series a try, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Dorian was originally carved for Notre Dame in Paris, but he was a bit too small; the sculptor gave him to magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, who inadvertently brought the gray stone creature to life through a bit of alchemy. Now he and Zoe live together in Portland, where they are occasionally called upon to solve mysteries.

In The Lost Gargoyle of Paris, Zoe and Dorian travel to Paris (Dorian has to travel in Zoe’s checked luggage—quelle horreur!) shortly after the fire at Notre Dame. Discovered in the wreckage was an original drawing of a gargoyle by Victor Hugo, the man who wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame and is credited for inspiring the 19th-century renovation of the then-dilapidated cathedral. Zoe is concerned that her old foes, the backwards alchemists (who try to use destructive shortcuts to achieve transformations), might attempt to use the drawing to regain their power.

This novella works nicely as a stand-alone, since Pandian gives just enough backstory to allow newcomers to get on board. (There’s even an excerpt of the first book in the series, The Accidental Alchemist, at the end.) For people (like me!) who have been eagerly awaiting the next installment of Zoe and Dorian’s adventures, this clever mystery provides a welcome chance to catch up with some old friends.