Saturday, January 13, 2024

Can Anyone Get Away With Murder? Eight Perfect Murders Provides An Answer


Scott D. Parker

The last book I read in 2023 was the Christmas novella, The Christmas Guest, by a new-to-me writer, Peter Swanson. I thoroughly enjoyed the holiday-themed story—and the twist—that I wanted to read another novel by the author. So the first book of 2024 I read was another Swanson book.

But where to start? How about a novel featuring famous literary murders?

Eight Perfect Murders is Swanson’s sixth novel. It stars Malcolm Kershaw, the owner of a mystery bookstore in Boston. In first-person POV, Malcolm tells us the story of how an FBI agent, Gwen Mulvey, comes to ask Malcolm for his insight into a few murders that may or may not be connected. She thinks they are. Her bosses have other ideas. The connection, Gwen thinks, is that they are based on murders from books.

The eight literary murders in question comes from a blog entry Malcolm wrote years ago to promote the bookstore’s blog. The list is his take on “perfect” murders in novels. Here they are:

The Red House Mystery (1922) by A.A. Milne

Malice Aforethought (1931) by Anthony Berkeley Cox

The A.B.C. Murder (1936) by Agatha Christie

Double indemnity (1943) by James M. Cain

Strangers on a Train (1950) by Patricia Highsmith

The Drowner (1963) by John D. MacDonald

Deathtrap (1978) by Ira Levin

The Secret History (1992) by Donna Tartt

(Sidenote on Spoilers: I’ll be honest here and say that I’ve read none of these books and only seen the movie versions of Double Indemnity and Strangers on a Train. The plots of these books are discussed and revealed. I instantly had the idea that I should read all these books beforehand…but then realized I just didn’t care. I wanted to read this book here and now so, yeah, all eight books are spoiled. But I suspect a reader who has read all the books will get a kick out of it. Besides, a few of characters also say “I saw the movie, but I didn’t read the book.”)

Gwen asks Malcolm how he came up with the list and here—and throughout the book—we get lots of discussion about these and other mystery books. For aficionados of the genre, it’s pretty fun. It’s book nerd stuff, and it made me wonder if Swanson really enjoyed talking about books like these and figured out a way to write a novel around it.

Malcolm gives her a few details, but keeps other things to himself. In fact, as the story goes on, the layers of Malcolm’s character are revealed…and it’s pretty darn cool.

The Structure of the Book

You know how the movie, “The Blair Witch Project,” was marketed as actual found footage? There’s a lot of that here. In fact, the opening dedication reads “A Memoir” followed by a disclaimer about the events being true. It got me just curious enough to flip back to the copyright page and verify that yes, this was a work of fiction.

With this being a first-person POV, everything is from Malcolm’s eyes, including some curious, almost fourth-wall breaking moments. One—and this is not a spoiler—has him making readers question what they’ve read, and he does this by pointing out the little nuances of the writing itself that might make you kick yourself for not catching them. It’s quite clever, and it changed how I experienced what Malcolm said and did.

The Unveiling of Details

Swanson performs some seriously good writing magic as this book goes on. He’ll introduce a person or a concept and give you some pieces of information where you form an opinion on said person or concept. Sometimes, it’s an off-hand reference, but you start to build a story around what you think about Malcolm and his world.

Then Swanson lays down another literary card, and what you formed is flipped on its side. That’s fine because that’s what authors do. You take the new information and adjust your way of thinking. Only for Swanson to upend your expectations again. It’s devilishly clever, and I started to find myself hedging my bets on new characters or concepts.

The Narration

I have to give a shoutout to Graham Halstead, the narrator of the audiobook. Just as Swanson changes how you perceive Malcolm, Halstead’s narration performs a similar feat. The way he narrates Malcolm in the beginning of the book changes as the chapters increase. 

The Reveal

I’m certainly not going to give away the ending here—because I want you to read it—but it was nice to have things fully explained with no room for misunderstanding. The explanation was well earned.

The Discovery of a New-to-Me Author

When it comes to reading, it is so wonderful to discover a new-to-you author with other books already completed and waiting to be read. Two books into Peter Swanson’s bibliography and I’m eager to keep reading his books. With eight novels, I actually had the thought that I could get through all of Swanson’s books by the end of the year. Check back in December to see how it all turned out.

Have you read Swanson’s books? What are your favorites?

No comments: