Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson follows Malcolm Kershaw, co-owner of a mystery bookshop in Boston known as Old Devils Bookstore. The story opens with a fictional disclaimer framing the book as a true story, as Malcolm talks directly to the reader, leading them through recent events. From the beginning, the reader gets the feeling there is more to this reclusive narrator than is first apparent because even Malcolm himself takes care to inform the reader that he is not trustworthy. One day, Malcolm gets an unexpected visit from the FBI. Agent Gwen Mulvey comes to Old Devils to consult Malcolm on a string of recent murders. Though seemingly unrelated, Gwen believes the murders are recreations of famous literary crimes, specifically those listed in Malcolm’s blog post titled “Eight Perfect Murders.” Drawn into a whirlwind murder mystery of his own, Malcolm helps Gwen solve the case all while featuring as a potential suspect. However, as the crimes draw uncomfortably close to secrets in Malcolm’s past, the bookseller finds himself racing against the clock to solve the case for himself.
This mystery is a love letter to readers everywhere, referencing countless famous murder mysteries from Agatha Christie’s The A.B.C. Murders to Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. As the criminal in Swanson’s story attempts to recreate the murders from these famous novels, there are some major spoilers for the eight books on Malcolm’s list. The murders and endings of The A.B.C. Murders, Strangers on a Train, The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne, Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles, Double Indemnity by James M. Cain, The Drowner by Robert Drewe, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, and Deathtrap by Ira Levin are discussed in detail. While it is not necessary to read these books to enjoy Eight Perfect Murders, those who intend to read one of those eight books may wish to do so before picking up Eight Perfect Murders. Malcolm is well versed in literature and provides fascinating insights throughout the entire investigation.
Malcolm Kershaw’s character is easily the best part of the book. As an unreliable narrator, Malcolm adds another depth of mystery beyond the current string of murders. Every chapter reveals a new fragment of his history and shifts the reader’s view of his character and role in the story. As the plot progresses, Malcolm becomes even more intertwined in the story. What first seems to be a slim, circumstantial connection is revealed to be a sinister and deadly part of a long-running game.
Where Eight Perfect Murders falls short is in its environment and supporting characters. Malcolm himself is a complex and engaging character, but he is completely isolated. Even as the case becomes increasingly dangerous, the increase in stakes feels hard to grasp because the reader does not know any of the other characters enough to care about their survival. His two assistants are described in minimal detail and rarely appear in the book. Agent Gwen Mulvey never develops beyond an FBI detective. Later revelations lack impact because the character herself is forgettable.
One of the most important elements of a mystery is the big twist at the end. While a balance between shocking and logical is important, Eight Perfect Murders may have played it a bit too safe. With such a clever and complex main character, one might reasonably assume that the twist would be equally as well-crafted. However, the big reveal is extremely straight forward. With a small cast of characters, only so many people could have logically been the murderer. Whether or not the reader put the clues together and predicted the identity of the murderer, the reveal feels underwhelming. As it is slowly revealed that Malcolm may be more connected to the murders, we follow as he pieces every clue together. Though the identity of the murderer was not particularly shocking, there was potential to strengthen the ending by adding a big reveal, some dark twisted element that had not yet been explored. In the end, the story is pretty much what Malcolm had put together. The murderer, in their rather convenient villain monologue full of backstory, adds little to the plot, apart from their identity. Throughout the novel, Malcolm slowly fits the pieces together, illustrating the connections and motivations, yet the last few revelations, some of the most important, are clumped together in one big dump of information. Although Swanson’s novel had so much potential to be as clever as the narrator who tells it, Eight Perfect Murders falls just short of being a ninth perfect murder mystery.