Like many things in literature, the definition of “perfect murder” is a little wobbly. It generally means a murder in which the perpetrator not only gets away with the crime, but they might also escape suspicion entirely. In fiction, there might also be criteria for originality, believability, and other qualifiers. These criteria mean that people will always argue about what the most perfect murders in fiction actually are. In Eight Perfect Murders, by Peter Swanson, protagonist Malcolm Kershaw constantly has to defend his list of eight novels with perfect murders—a list that comes under more fire than usual when it appears to be inspiring a serial killer.
When FBI agent Gwen Mulvey shows up at Malcolm’s Boston-based mystery book store, I thought that her theory that a handful of unsolved murders were connected by Malcolm’s old list of perfect murders was really thin. If you squinted at the particulars of these cases and turned the paper sideways, you might be able to see links. Malcolm decides to squint and turns the pages sideways, after some resistance, and joins up with Gwen to solve some puzzling cases. Perhaps it’s because it’s flattering to be contacted by the FBI. Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t have much going on in his life. Perhaps it’s because of secrets that will be revealed later. At any rate, Malcolm soon finds himself in way over his head in one of the weirdest mystery plots I’ve ever encountered.
I can’t say that it all hangs together. I wasn’t exactly wrong in thinking that Gwen’s case was thin. I certainly didn’t expect it to go where Malcolm ended up. I’m not entirely sure I buy it. What I did believe were the parts of the book that show how easy it is for thought experiments about the perfect murder lead some people to actually commit acts they think they can get away with. We like to think that only the most evil kill people—and there are some really evil people in Eight Perfect Murders—but some killers are people who’ve been pushed too far, suffer a lapse in ethical judgment, and then scramble not to get caught. In the case of this novel, people scramble not to get caught in a highly elaborate scheme that any mystery reader knows is doomed to fail. We know this because, even in stories of the most perfect murders, the killer has to confess what they’ve done to us readers.
In spite of some parts that I think stretch credibility too far, this book will pique readers’ interests—especially the interests of readers who want to see something highly original. I might go so far as to say that this book should only be recommended to mystery readers because they’ll enjoy all of the references to classic mystery fiction. They will also be less likely to be annoyed by all of the spoilers Malcolm drops in connecting his list to all the murders because they will have read most if not all of those books.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.