Eight Perfect Murders: Breezy Read, Flawed Whodunit



By Peter Swanson

William Morrow, 274 pages.




The premise of Peter Swanson’s mystery is emblazoned on its cover: “How do you get away with murder? Make it look impossible.” Of course, that’s often the case for murder mysteries, which is why we need a Holmes, a Poirot, or a Marple to unravel how the unlikely is exactly what happened.


Malcolm Kershaw loves books like that. He’s been a disappointment to many–a 1999 college grad who never grew up. He loved lurid mystery novels as a kid, started collecting them then, and began working in bookshops as soon as he graduated from college. His one major accomplishment was that he bought the shop in which the previous proprietor created a job for him, Old Devils Bookstore on Boston’s Beacon Hill, though Malcolm hasn’t exactly transformed it into a howling success. Out of the blue, FBI Special Agent Gwen Mulvey pops into the store to ask for his help. She ran across a blog he wrote for the store years earlier in which he wrote about eight books with “perfect murders.” His selections were idiosyncratic and Mulvey believes that a serial killer has been using it a blueprint. Malcolm protests he only wrote blog posts to drum up business for the previous owner, but Mulvey seems desperate.


Hers is the ultimate fishing expedition, but Malcolm hasn’t had much of a life since his drug-addled wife died in a car crash five years earlier; his two employees are younger, and the store cat, Nero, is his closest companion. Most nights, Malcolm has a few drinks and heads home to his attic apartment, which is crammed with old mysteries. So, needless to say, he didn’t play hard-to-get when Mulvey asked for his help. The more we learn about Malcolm, the more he emerges as a sad sack–the kind that would marry a woman he knew to be a free-spirit and addict. Not even his drinking acquaintances qualify as friends; he’s more like wallpaper for the watering holes he frequents. He does get suspicious, though, when some of the victims had tangential ties to Old Devils and begins to suspect that Mulvey has ulterior motives.


Eight Perfect Murders veers in directions that involve the dark Web, exchange murders, a busybody ex-cop, and a few too many coincidences for comfort. It gets weirder still when Mulvey is suspended and the murder cases are handed off to two new agents. As is often the case in mysteries, this one also involves the Pandora’s Box Syndrome; that is, key individuals open doors and investigations that are beyond their capacity to control.   


At this juncture I should say that Eight Perfect Murders is a breezy read, but a flawed whodunit. I soused out the killer long before the short novel concluded and read on merely to see how Swanson dotted the I’s and crossed the T’s. If you are a fan of classic detective fiction, your greatest pleasure will be contemplating the numerous mentioned works and plots within the main novel. By about the two-thirds mark, though, Swanson strains to maintain tension and it becomes more and more obvious who we need to watch and who we can safely ignore. Were it not for an ambiguous ending, I think I would have felt cheated.


You probably don’t need me to tell you that the novel’s title is ironic. Murder is always messy; there’s no such thing as a “perfect” murder, even if the culprit manages to elude arrest. 


Rob Weir

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