Rules for Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson

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Reviewed by Harriet

I’ve reviewed two of Peter Swanson’s excellent psychological thrillers on Shiny before. There have been a couple of others since then, reviewed on my blog rather than on here, and the standard has always been high. So I was delighted to get my hands on a review copy of this one, out in the UK in early March, especially as it came with a recommendation from Anthony Horowitz: ‘Fiendishly good fun’.

The narrator, Malcolm Kershaw, is the co-owner and manager of a bookstore in Boston, Massachusetts. The store is called The Old Devils, and it specialises in mystery and crime novels. As the story begins, on a cold, snowy night, Kershaw is visited by FBI Agent Gwen Mulvey. She is investigating some very puzzling recent murders, and believes she sees a link with a blog post Kershaw wrote several years earlier, under the title Eight Perfect Murders. In the post, he had named eight classic crime novels, in each of which the method of the murder is such that the perpetrator is not discovered, and is unlikely to be. The novels are The Red House by AA. Milne, Malice Aforethought by Anthony Berkeley Cox, The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie, Double Indemnity by James McCain, Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith, The Drowner by John D. MacDonald, the play Deathtrap by Ira Levin, and The Secret History by Donna Tartt.

The murders Mulvey has identified appear to echo The ABC Murders and Double Indemnity. In Christie’s novel, the killer follows the alphabet a murder at a time, but in fact it turns out that the real target is just one of the victims, and the others are there as cover. In the case Mulvey is investigating, three victims all have names associated with birds. As for Double Indemnity, the plot involves throwing a body out of a train, but the perpetrator has provided themselves with a perfect alibi by means of some cunning impersonation involving, among other things, a fake plaster cast on one leg.

Mulvey and Kershaw become fascinated by the demands of trying to work out how the various methods in the books could be replicated. In the Levin play, for example, a woman with a heart condition is literally frightened to death by her attacker. Could there have been a similar recent case, which would require a very vulnerable victim? It soon turns out that there was indeed such a possible case quite recently, that of a woman named Eileen Johnson. Investigating her flat, Mulvey and Kershaw find all eight classic novels from the list carefully lined up on the bookshelf.

And now the plot begins to thicken. Eileen was in fact known to Kershaw, as she was a regular and rather annoying customer at the shop before she moved away from Boston, but for whatever reason, he doesn’t want Mulvey to know of their connection. Indeed, it soon becomes clear that Kershaw is not a reliable narrator. A whole backstory starts to slowly emerge concerning the death of his wife Claire, who died in a car crash. Is Kershaw simply traumatised, self-medicating with alcohol, and unable to think clearly? Or is there a more sinister reason for his lack of openness with Mulvey, who is actually not being totally honest with him either? And what was really the truth behind Claire’s death?

Peter Swanson obviously had tremendous fun writing this book. As you’d expect from this author, it’s full of misdirection and concealment, and there are numerous twists, turns and surprises. In the final analysis it also raises the question of whether there could indeed be such a thing as a perfect murder. And, though it has to be said that the plot includes spoilers for all the books on the list, it made me immediately long to go back and re-read the novels that I’ve already read, and explore the ones I haven’t. Plus there’s another famous novel, which doesn’t appear on Kershaw’s list, the relevance of which doesn’t appear until the final few pages. You’ll have to read the book to find out what it is.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and is looking forward to some weeks of self-isolation indulge in her favourite comfort read, classic crime.

Peter Swanson, Rules for Perfect Murders (Faber & Faber, 2020). 978-0571342358, 288 pp., hardback.

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