“When we first meet someone, before words are ever spoken, there are already lies and half-truths.” Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson

May 1, 2020 at 2:44 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Peter Swanson and his novel, a gift to us lovers of crime fiction

That title makes it sound like a right blood bath, doesn’t it? But it actually refers to a list of crime novels:

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

The list was compiled by one Malcolm Kershaw, part owner and proprietor of The Old Devils Bookstore in Boston. He placed this list on the store’s blog, and  it created something of a stir among mystery aficionados.  By far the most notable and bizarre reaction to it is that of a dedicated murderer who has apparently decided, by means of his own depraved methods, to replicate the scenarios set forth in each of the titles on the list.

Eight Perfect Murders is exceptionally well plotted, with enough twists and turns to keep  the reader thoroughly engaged. To a degree, the book is about the mystery genre itself, and why so many of us love it. Especially toward the beginning, the author is tossing out titles and authors left and right – there’s something for everyone. When he casually mentions to the fact that Ruth Rendell once presented a reading at The Ole Devils, I just wanted to cheer! But soon enough, things begin to get somewhat grim….

That said, Malcolm Kershaw does have his flippant moments, such as this one, when he’s describing the plot of The Red House Mystery:

There’s a rich man named Mark Ablett who lives in a country house, the kind of English one that seems specifically designed to have a murder occur in it.

(Now the fact is, that after you’ve read as many country house mysteries as I have, you start to feel as though the whole purpose of the English country house is to serve as a setting for a slaying.)

Before he took on The Old Devils, Malcolm had worked at a bookstore in Harvard Square. He recalls that the owner’s wife had given him a list of her favorite books, almost all of which were mysteries:

Besides Malice Aforethought, she’d listed Gaudy Night and The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers, The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, the first two Sue Grafton books, The Ritual Bath by Faye Kellerman, and The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, even though she said she’d never finished it (“I just love the beginning so much”). Her other favorite book was Bleak House by Charles Dickens; I guess you could say that it has mystery elements, as well.

Well, of course, I can’t see a list like this without putting in my two cents, as it were. In general, I think it’s pretty good, although I’ve never  been able to warm to Faye Kellerman and I couldn’t get through The Name of the Rose. On the other hand, I revere Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter novels, and I love, and miss very much, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series. The Daughter of Time is Josephine Tey’s most famous book, but not, in my view, her best. That accolade, I think, should go to two of her other titles: Brat Farrar and The Franchise Affair.

Finally I’d like to note my surprise at the rather dismissive attitude toward Bleak House. I’ve not read it – though I keep meaning to, alas – but I did watch the superb 2005 BBC miniseries. (Who could forget the lowering evil of Mr. Tulkinghorn, so masterfully portrayed by Charles Dance?) There is indeed a significant “mystery element’ in that novel; it is present in the person of Inspector Bucket. On the Victorian Web, there’s an excellent essay entitled “Inspector Bucket Points the Way.”

I do have  several reservations about this book. First, it seems a bit of a stretch – to me, at least – that Malcolm Kershaw  makes  such a good living from The Old Devils Bookstore that he’s able to employ two full time assistants there. Second, I don’t recall a single mention of the advent of e-books, an issue looming so very large in the book business right now and affecting it in every possible way. (No mention – or if there is, it’s very cursory – of Amazon, either.)

Toward the end of Eight Perfect Murders, Malcolm Kershaw talks about The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. This 1926 novel, the third to feature the suave Belgian Hercule Poirot, caused something of a sensation because of the ingenious and wholly unexpected twist at the end. Kershaw, alas, gives it away in his brief summary. If you haven’t read or seen The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, you’ll want to skip over that (very brief) portion of Eight Perfect Murders. That denouement in the Christie novel is much more fun if you come upon it completely unprepared, as I was lucky enough to do when I first read it.

These are minor cavils, really. Over all, this novel was a very enjoyable and immersive read. It kept my mind off a certain nasty bug currently lying in wait, and for that, I am very grateful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 Comment

  1. geebee1951 said,

    I loved this book! Probably because of all the classic mysteries included in the story. I believe Eight Perfect Murders could become a classic on its own.

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