on March 3, 2020
A chilling tale of psychological suspense and an homage to the thriller genre tailor-made for fans: the story of a bookseller who finds himself at the center of an FBI investigation because a very clever killer has started using his list of fiction’s most ingenious murders.
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.
Back in January, I read and loved Peter Swanson’s The Kind Worth Killing. I was over the moon having heard of Eight Perfect Murders coming out in March, so I figured I should read an earlier Swanson book before cracking the cover on EPM. When I received my preorder in the mail, I thought two things:
- “Oh no, deckled edges.”
- “This book is super short.”
Both of these things are true! I don’t like deckled edges, and at just 270 pages, Eight Perfect Murders is not known for its longevity. I even attempted to read it at release, but ultimately wound up falling short and shelving it for a time. I picked it back up after finishing The Sweeney Sisters, longing for a little murder after the sugar sweetness, and this time I made it past page 50 and it really started to pick up in what I now consider “classic Swanson style.”
How I’d Describe This Book to a Friend
This book is written as a sort of confessional – it’s a “names have been changed” type of almost epistolary story, an autobiography detailing how the author got into this mess. A lot of episodes of Doug on Nickelodeon had a similar opening.
In case you were wondering, I’m 31 years old and still sick of the “Patty Mayonnaise” jokes I received in he 90s due to my name.
Our narrator, Malcolm, has seen some shit. He was made a widower not too terribly long ago, and all he pretty much has going for him is his little “hole in the wall” book store that caters specifically to mystery/thriller novels. He works, goes home, and drinks himself to sleep. Mal has had better days. Especially days better than when Gwen, an FBI agent who either has albinism or is just very super pale (still not sure which), breezes into his door.
Turns out when “blogs” were a new concept, Mal wrote one for his former boss’s book shop: a list of what Mal considered the eight most perfect literary murders. The ones that were untraceable, genius, flawless in their execution. And now, all these years later, Gwen is here because she suspects this blog post is at the root of a string of serial murders – each following the text of these books off Mal’s list, growing slightly more maudlin with each turn. Mal, she believes, might be able to stop them. She also believes that Mal might not be entirely innocent in this … the thing is, Mal probably isn’t.
The Bottom Line
Eight Perfect Murders takes about 50 pages to get going, but once it does it’s like watching a greyhound run a sprint. If it was an onomatopoeia, this book would be “nyoom.”
OK this greyhound isn’t running but I couldn’t not use this GIF.
There are a lot of names in this story, and they go so freakin’ fast I had to take physical notes to keep them apart – who died, how they died, which book we think their death emulates, etc. Mal also goes over the eight perfect murders themselves – I’d only even heard of two of those books, and only read one – so if you don’t like spoilers of any kind, be sure you don’t plan to read any of these eight books before jumping in this rabbit hole. Swanson gives just enough info on the deaths present in each story so you don’t feel totally bombarded – which is good because I will never read A Secret History and you can’t make me. While this is good, it does contribute to the overall sense of “holy info dump, Batman.”
Unreliable narrators are my jam, and the couple of twists Swanson served up here were what kept me going. For such a short book, it really felt like a slog in some areas and I can’t even quite articulate why. If I had to try, I’d guess it’s the info dump of people + murders + book plots + Mal’s elaborate back story which ties into most of the above, and you’re left with so few pages to play cat and mouse in. (plus those damn deckled edges …)
Mal’s back story is delicious, the ending was wrapped up well, and I generally enjoyed my time in this book. But I shouldn’t have to take detailed notes for 270 pages, I just shouldn’t. I loved The Kind Worth Killing, so I’m a little surprised this one fell so flat? I have Before She Knew Him on my TBR cart, and I hope to hit it soon – maybe this is just an author whose older books I like better? If I’d had 100 or even just 50 more pages, my opinion here would likely be totally different. Give this one a try for sure, just don’t pay full price for it – it’s too short to justify $15+ (plus the damn deckled edges!)
“Books are time travel. True readers all know this. But books don’t just take you back to the time in which they were written; they can take you back to different versions of yourself.”