The Eighth Detective, by Alex Pavesi

There are mysteries within mysteries within mysteries in Alex Pavesi’s The Eighth Detective. We as readers have no idea about any of this at the outset of the novel. All we know at the beginning is that Julia Hart is visiting reclusive author Grant McAllister on a sunny Mediterranean island. McAllister’s book of stories—based on his theories of mathematical rules for detective stories—is being considered for a reprint. Julia quizzes Grant about those theories and his past, but when she starts to ask strange questions that Grant evades or replies to with claims of a bad memory, it becomes clear that something else is going on. This is no simple visit between an editor and a writer.

Sometime in the 1940s, Grant McAllister published a collection of seven stories and one essay. The essay outlines mathematical definitions for mystery stories. English majors will recognize the work as genre analysis, but the math is an interesting touch. McAllister reduces genre conventions to Venn diagrams and the smallest feasible number of characters that a story has to have. The stories illustrate different variations on this mathematical model, usually by showing how categories of victim, suspect, detective, and killer can be combined. Mystery readers will recognize some of these in stories where the detective is the killer or where everyone who is a suspect also turns out to be a killer. Even readers who haven’t read Christie’s greatest hits will probably recognize one story that is a retelling of And Then There Were None.

Julia’s very close reading of the collection brings up a series of inconsistencies. One story constantly substitutes the word black for white. In another, a dog is mentioned and never reappears. Others have logical issues that a good editor will clear up before the book is sent for printing. Julia has a theory that these inconsistencies are really a confession to a long-unsolved murder—a murder that oddly shares the same name as McAllister’s collection. McAllister blames his memory when questioned about them, or insists that they’re little jokes he put into the text.

The Eighth Detective is written in alternating chapters. Julia reads the stories from the collection to McAllister then, in the next chapter, she’ll ask him about his thought process or why he left Scotland all those years ago and never returned. Julia’s close reading is a powerful clue to readers that we need to pay attention to everything. Thus we have the pleasure of not only trying to work out the solution to each of the seven stories; we’re also asked to figure out what the hell is going on with Julia and Grant. I loved every chapter. Readers who like challenging reads where there are constant twists and turns will relish The Eighth Detective.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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