The iconic actor Sydney Poitier once said, “So much of life, it seems to me, is determined by pure randomness.” Peter Swanson’s new mystery, Nine Lives, provides a perfect example of this sentiment as it doles out a series of inexplicable murders.
Nine individuals, ranging from an actor to a professor, from a father to a nurse, receive a cryptic one-page letter in the mail containing a list of their names. None of the people on the list are familiar with one another or have any apparent connection, past or present. Most don’t even live in the same state. Swanson swiftly moves from one character’s point of view to another’s, establishing the core cast in short chapters that provide compelling sketches of all nine intended targets.
Since the letter had no return address or other instructions within, several of the recipients naturally dismiss it. But then people on the list suddenly start dying: A retired bar owner is drowned while another man is shot in the back while jogging near his home. FBI agent Jessica Winslow, who is one of the names on the list, races against the clock to identify the other recipients and the killer before she too becomes a victim.
Nine Lives is in many ways an heir to Agatha Christie’s classic whodunit And Then There Were None, in which eight random individuals are invited to a remote island only to be stalked by a killer. But where Christie made clear that her characters had all committed crimes and the killer was out for revenge, the motives and location of Swanson’s killer are terrifyingly opaque. Swanson creates a rollercoaster for readers, offering clues only to upend everything that was supposedly certain moments earlier. And all the while, the number of remaining victims is counting down, from nine to zero.