Peter Swanson’s latest release Rules for Perfect Murders (also released elsewhere as Eight Perfect Murders) is a very clever novel. I notice Anthony Horowitz has offered up a recommendation quote for the cover, which makes sense as it’s reminiscent of his (more traditional crime fiction) work as well.
I guess, by its nature the book is (in fact) a homage to crime fiction – particularly that by some of the greats. It’s twisty and very intelligently written. Indeed it’s very different. It could have been amazing but (though still a good read) I felt it fell slightly short of its potential.
Rules for Perfect Murders
by Peter Swanson
Published by Faber & Faber
Source: Allen & Unwin
Genres: Psychological Thriller, Thriller / Suspense
Years ago, bookseller and mystery aficionado Malcolm Kershaw compiled a list of the genre’s most unsolvable murders, those that are almost impossible to crack—which he titled “Eight Perfect Murders”—chosen from among the best of the best including Agatha Christie’s A. B. C. Murders, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, Ira Levin’s Death Trap, A. A. Milne's Red House Mystery, Anthony Berkeley Cox's Malice Aforethought, James M. Cain's Double Indemnity, John D. Macdonald's The Drowner, and Donna Tartt's A Secret History.
But no one is more surprised than Mal, now the owner of the Old Devils Bookshop in Boston, when an FBI agent comes knocking on his door one snowy day in February. She’s looking for information about a series of unsolved murders that look eerily similar to the killings on Mal’s old list. And the FBI agent isn’t the only one interested in this bookseller who spends almost every night at home reading. The killer is out there, watching his every move—a diabolical threat who knows way too much about Mal’s personal history, especially the secrets he’s never told anyone, even his recently deceased wife.
To protect himself, Mal begins looking into possible suspects—and sees a killer in everyone around him. But Mal doesn’t count on the investigation leaving a trail of death in its wake. Suddenly, a series of shocking twists leaves more victims dead—and the noose around Mal’s neck grows so tight he might never escape.
I really liked Malcolm. I love the way Swanson slowly unpacks his history and we learn more and more about his life and his secrets.
I also really liked the premise of this book. There have been other books and movies also featuring killers replicating the work of others. Copycat killers. Sometimes they’re just psychotic and keen to kill but want to find a clever way to do it. Here, it seems obvious there’s a link – of some sort – to Malcolm. He eventually suspects what it might be, but realises he’ll have to face up to events of his past if he wants to uncover their identity.
My biggest issue with the book is actually the very long bow I felt FBI Special Agent Gwen Mulvey, draws from initial murders to books on which they’re based (not to mention her motivation to work the case). Three individuals are killed (all with names that have something to do with a bird) and she leaps to the conclusion it’s mimicking Agatha Christie’s ABC murders – seemingly random murders, but in fact two people randomly killed to mask the intended murder of another.
And then there’s a woman who has a heart attack. I couldn’t work out how she was even on Gwen’s radar, let alone link her death to a book about someone with a dodgy heart whose murder is masked as natural causes. (As it happens the victim has a link to Malcolm but Gwen couldn’t have known that when she first came across the case.)
Gwen and Malcolm realise that the killer may not be killing victims in the exact same manner as the author wrote the original murders in the books and the victim themselves may not be targets, but it’s the intent that’s important. But still….
I LOVE crime fiction, so this could have been the perfect book for me. There are references to some of my favourite authors (though—via the characters—a smidge of disdain toward more contemporary novels). In fact I was even intrigued as to whether Mal’s business partner’s (an author) character was a female version of one of my fave gumshoes, Spenser (written by Robert B Parker). The novels were translated onto the small screen (Spenser for Hire) in the mid 1980s and recently (though with little reverence to Parker’s work) via Spenser Confidential by Netflix.
Not only did I love the physical setting of this book (predominantly a crime-fiction focussed bookshop) but I loved the ‘world’ in which this book is set: with Malcolm’s crime novel-loving staff members; obsessive readers; and references to author talks and signings etc.
This is the fourth book I’ve read by Swanson, all of which feature complex and interesting characters and often an ethical or moral dilemma or two. Although I was a tad disappointed in some of the leaps in logic (here) this is a very clever and engaging book, offering up a lot of twists and surprises.
Rules for Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson was published in Australia by Allen & Unwin and is now available.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.