William Morrow, 288 pages, $27.99
Shame on me! I read a few pages and immediately presumed this would be a certain kind of book: a cozy with lots of geeked-out mystery references. I was down with that and looked forward to a tea-sipper. Despite how ready I was for a soft-boiled, kudos to author Peter Swanson for blowing that out of the water!
Slowly he turned, step by step …
Swanson creates layer upon layer of back story for his main character, Malcolm Kershaw, co-owner of the Old Devils Bookstore in Boston. Having once been a bookstore owner myself (sob), the details of bookstore maintenance were satisfying. (However, when did he order books? Where is the inordinate amount of time spent on advertising and event planning?)
Malcolm’s co-owner is a famous mystery author who only occasionally visits the premises, sometimes actually filling in for a shift or two. (Really? Like Ann Patchett, I suppose. Although in my experience, it's not easy just to fill in at a bookstore unless you know the stock.) He has a couple of steadfast employees who seem very flexible in their ability to fill in for shifts. And there’s a store cat, Nero. (Wow! This seems like bookstore paradise. I’ll take one to go, please.) (I’ll try to curb the parenthetical comments, but it’s hard.)
One day, FBI agent Gwen Mulvey enters the store with a cockamamie story about murders being committed according to the list of “Eight Perfect Murders” Malcolm once did a long time ago for the bookstore’s blog.
For the curious, here are the eight books:
The Red House Mystery, by A. A. Milne
Malice Aforethought, by Anthony Berkeley Cox
The A.B.C. Murders, by Agatha Christie
Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain
Strangers on a Train, by Patricia Highsmith
The Drowner, by John D. MacDonald
Deathtrap, by Ira Levin
The Secret History, by Donna Tartt
So. Has some twisted mystery fan been murdering people by twinning the plots of these books? From an obscure list written years ago? Agent Mulvey presents what she knows so far, then perhaps in the best tradition of involving amateurs in professional matters, she asks for Malcolm’s help. Maybe. Does she have another reason? There is a lot going on under the surface, according to Malcolm’s thinking.
This is what I really enjoyed about “Eight Perfect Murders” — because I’m not going further with telling you about the plot of the book — Peter Swanson moves slickly from one style of mystery to another, ending with a very contemporary-yet-old-fashioned ending. The story flies in the face of everything die-hard mystery readers think they know about plotting. Surprise!