Malcolm “Mal” Kershaw’s days are steeped in mystery. He’s a constant reader and recommender of the genre and, after many years as a bookseller, now co-owns Old Devils Bookstore along with a mystery author. Mal’s home is austere, his routines simple, his days mostly ordinary.
But then: FBI agent Gwen Mulvey shows up at the store to ask about three homicides reminiscent of those in Agatha Christie’s The A.B.C. Murders. Years ago, Mal wrote a blog post about “the cleverest, the most ingenious, the most foolproof . . . murders in crime fiction history,” a post that now seems to be serving as a checklist for a murderer whom Gwen must stop before he strikes again.
Like Mal, author Peter Swanson has a nigh encyclopedic knowledge of mysteries, thanks to his own years spent working in bookstores. “I loved being a bookseller!” he says. “I’ve definitely had a lifelong love of reading, and I was always doing a little writing on the side. . . . I didn’t try my hand at a novel until I was deep into my 30s and didn’t get an agent until I was in my 40s, for the fourth book I’d written.”
That was The Girl With a Clock for a Heart, published in 2014. Eight Perfect Murders is his sixth book (and he’s got a couple more in the works). Thus far, all of Swanson’s books have been set in New England, where he grew up, went to college and now lives. When conjuring up Eight Perfect Murders, Swanson says he instantly gravitated toward Beacon Hill, “the beautiful section of Boston I live in. . . . It’s got narrow streets, high hills, cobblestones—that gothic mystery feel. Plus, I like my books to have seasons.”
Read our review of Before She Knew Him by Peter Swanson.
Mal’s life is in a decidedly wintry season. There’s wind and snow and a truly chilling feeling of impending doom taking root in his heart. He’s flattered that an FBI agent would seek his help, but also increasingly worried that she’ll find out he’s keeping secrets or, even worse, decide he’s a suspect. He maintains his evening rituals (music, beer, poetry) and daytime duties (managing staff, reshelving, feeding the bookstore cat) as he rereads the mysteries from his original blog post in search of clues. As the days pass and the pages turn, he becomes ever more paranoid; everyone he encounters seems a reasonable suspect, every plotline a complex yet viable real-life scenario.
Swanson says the idea for the book and its titular list bubbled up to the surface when he was walking around Walden Pond, not far from his home. “I’m a full-time writer,” he explains, “and I spend half my day writing and the other half taking a long walk somewhere. I was working out a short story and thinking, what are clever murder ideas in books, really clever ways to disguise what actually happened? I was thinking of this list, and then the book was just there. What if someone wrote it down and used it to commit real murders?”
“My own work is sort of Hitchcockian, with ordinary people who wind up in crime scenarios.”
Nearly the entire book was in Swanson’s head by walk’s end, which “was exciting, but also horrifying,” he says. “Now I’ve got to sit down and go sentence to sentence!” But before hitting the keyboard, Swanson dove into his list of books. “I wasn’t picking what I think are the best murder mysteries; I was thinking about clever crimes that disguised the murderer’s intent.”
The books he chose—and that Mal explores in his literary-detective adventures—include Patricia Highsmith’s classic Strangers on a Train, Donna Tartt’s blockbuster The Secret History and The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne, who’s best known as the creator of the adorable, nonmurderous Winnie-the-Pooh.
“I love reading across the genre. And I think, even though I read procedurals that are steeped in forensic evidence, I don’t tend to gravitate toward writing them,” Swanson says. “My own work is sort of Hitchcockian, with ordinary people who wind up in crime scenarios. I’m much more interested in people who are in the gray area between criminal and noncriminal, murderer and nonmurderer, and how people get from one to the other.”
Fortunately, crafting such macabre tales while immersing himself in murderers’ minds hasn’t adversely affected Swanson’s psyche. “Generally, I’m fine!” he says, laughing. “I gravitate toward dark stuff, whether it’s movies, TV or what I write, but it doesn’t really affect me.”
As a reader, he’s been interested in the scarier stuff since childhood. “I don’t know why I was attracted to creepier books as a kid, but I was just like Malcolm was. I was probably 11 or 12, and my parents had beach books around the house, like Coma and Jaws. Once I read them, I was like, ‘This is what I want to read!’ I was hooked.”
Readers are sure to be hooked on Eight Perfect Murders, too. It’s a thrill to discover how Swanson braids the various books’ plots together as Malcolm grows ever more uneasy, the murderer ever bolder and the FBI ever more suspicious. And then there’s the story’s fulsome bibliophilia, from its book-loving characters to Malcolm’s expert and thoughtful literary musings—the perfect murder list itself is a ready-made TBR, with more titles and authors mentioned as the action unfolds. Because clever crimes and tension aside, Eight Perfect Murders is really about the joys (and dangers) of being a reader.
Author photo © Jim Ferguson.