Nine Lives by Peter Swanson

Reviewed by Harriet

Peter Swanson is a prolific author, averaging one book a year since his debut, The Girl with a Clock for a Heart in 2014. I’ve reviewed two of his intelligent and twisty crime novels on Shiny, [here] and [here], and others on my personal blog. So I was delighted to find that he’d just published another one. You never know quite what you’re going to find in a Swanson novel, but this one has one thing in common with Rules for Perfect Murders (2020): both books attest to the author’s liking for Golden Age detective fiction. In the 2020 book, a series of murders was quickly revealed to be copies of unsolved crimes in eight classic novels. In Nine Lives, Agatha Christie is much in evidence, though there are nods to many other writers of works of various genres scattered through the book. 

The novel starts with nine people in different parts of the United States each receiving a mysterious list through the post. Their own name is on the list, but the other eight are total strangers. So far so puzzling, but the drama really starts when one after another is murdered for no apparent reason. These are ordinary people, leading unremarkable and seemingly blameless lives. Obviously most readers’ minds at this point will think of And Then They Were None, and it doesn’t take long for the detectives on the case to go down that road too. They even start considering The ABC Murders, in which several murders are committed in such a way that the one that really matters to the killer is disguised in a series of other irrelevant decoys. All this is made more complicated by the fact that one of the names on the list is that of Jessica Winslow, who happens to be one of the detectives who is investigating the case. 

Following the first murder, that of elderly Frank Hopkins, drowned in a beach pool in his native Maine, an urgent hunt for the remaining people on this list is set in motion. Not all can be found, but those that are tracked down are offered police protection. Most of them accept, but the killer is ingenious and manages to do away with one victim while a police car is parked outside his door. Each killing is carried out in a different way, which makes things even more confusing.

As the novel proceeds, the reader is introduced to each of the intended victims, and gets an insight into the way they are reacting to the threat they are living with. This, for me, was one of the most interesting aspects of the novel: the way it immerses you in the minds and personalities of these disparate people. Some are likeable, such as Caroline Geddes, who is tracked down online by Ethan Dart after he spotted her during some intensive googling of fellow names on the list. Apart from the fact that they are about the same age, these two have apparently nothing in common – Geddes is a university professor in Michigan, Dart an aspiring musician in Texas. But they start an email conversation and discover a common love of poetry, which leads in the coming days to a deeper and more invested relationship. It’s impossible not to wish these two well, but the same cannot be said for Jay Coates, a failed actor and heavy drinker, who fantasises about physically abusing and possibly killing young women. In between these two extremes are a stressed suburban father, an oncology nurse grieving for his husband’s death, a retired businessman, and – the only person the detectives fail to track down –  Alison Horne, an aspiring photographer down on her luck, who has rather unwillingly accepted the financial support of her much older lover. 

Slowly, as the days turn into months, a possible though seemingly tenuous link emerges between some of the names. But this takes the investigating detectives no nearer to finding the perpetrator, and the body count increases relentlessly. Of course there’s a twist at the end – two, in fact – and all is revealed. It’s clever, but perhaps a trifle implausible. I didn’t mind this in the least as the journey and the guessing were so enjoyable. And when you read this, as you really should, don’t forget to check out the short paragraph of acknowledgments at the end, in which the names of Martin Amis, Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, Philip Larkin, John D. MacDonald, T.S. Eliot, Louis MacNeice and Muriel Spark are interspersed with those of the author’s friends and publishers. If this makes you curious to know more, take a look at the publishers’ website on which Swanson lists ‘the nine books that were on his mind’ while he was writing Nine Lives (https://www.faber.co.uk/journal/reading-list-nine-lives/). A fascinating book by an interesting man.

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Harriet is a co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books, and enjoyed recognising some, though not all, of the nods towards the writers in Swanson’s acknowledgments.

Peter Swanson, Nine Lives (Faber & Faber, 2022). 978-0571358557, 336pp., hardback.

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