Publisher: Faber & Faber (Trade Paperback – 3 March 2020)
Length: 272 pages
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
In a mood for a complex and rather clever murder mystery? Make sure to check out Rules for Perfect Murders, the curious latest release from bestselling crime fiction author Peter Swanson.
Across the greater Boston area a series of unsolved murders have been committed. None of the deaths appear to have anything in common, except for the fact that each one bears a similarity to a famous literary murder. However, there is one other tenuous link that could tie the murders together, and FBI agent Gwen Mulvey is curious enough to meet with the owner of the Old Devils mystery bookshop, Malcolm Kershaw, to test her theory.
Years ago, Malcolm posted an article on his bookshop’s blog titled Eight Perfect Murders, detailing the eight homicides in literary fiction that he thought were the cleverest ways to kill someone and get away with it. This list features some of the most devious cases ever conceived by some of the history’s greatest mystery writers, from Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders to Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith. Now it appears that several of the killings match the unique selection of books that Malcolm listed all those years ago. Is the killer using his post as a guide for his gruesome work?
Working with Agent Mulvey, Malcolm soon discovers a link between himself and the killings, as one of the victims was a former customer of his store. Convinced that the killer is someone he knows, Malcolm attempts to find them before they finish off his list. However, not everything is as it seems, and Malcolm must come to terms with some of his darkest secrets if he is to find the killer stalking him from the shadows.
This is the sixth novel from Swanson, who debuted back in 2014 with The Girl with a Clock for a Heart. I have not previously had the pleasure of reading any of Swanson’s books before; however, I really loved the concept behind this novel, and thought it would be a fun one to check out. Rules for Perfect Murders, which was also released as Eight Perfect Murders, is an intriguing and compelling novel that presents the reader with a fantastic murder mystery while also acting as a love letter to the murder mystery genre. This turned out to be an excellent read, which I was able to power through in just over a day.
I rather enjoyed the way that Swanson wrote Rules for Perfect Murders, mainly because he emulated some of the classic murder mystery novels which he clearly loves throughout the story. The book is told in first person, from the point of view of the protagonist, Malcolm Kershaw, and it is made to represent a manuscript, recalling the events that he experienced. The story than details the investigation into the murders that are occurring in the present day, while also diving back into the protagonist’s past, while also featuring a number of examinations about elements of the protagonist’s world, including his opinion about certain mystery novels. This first-person perspective really fits the tone of the book extremely well, and Swanson did an excellent job winding the various elements of the story, including the protagonist’s flashbacks, into a tight and captivating read. The various writing methods that Swanson employs throughout the book are direct references to a number of famous mystery novels, as the fictional author of the book is inspired by them as he writes. It was really fun to see the protagonist discussing the pros and cons of things like unreliable narrators, red herrings and other elements, right when he was utilising them in his manuscript. At the same time, the way that parts of the story go down, are very similar to some classic mystery stories. All of this helps create a very unique tale, and I think that Swanson did an amazing job bringing this clever concept together.
In the midst of Swanson’s homages and descriptions of classic and great mystery novels lies a rather good murder mystery storyline, as the protagonist attempts to find out who using his blog post as a basis for the killing spree. Swanson is able to produce a thrilling and clever mystery, full of twists, false leads and intriguing motive that tie into the protagonist’s complex past. It was also rather interesting to see the killer craft modern murders out of the classic scenarios featured in the fictional Eight Perfect Murders list, especially as these elements served as a complicating factor in the investigation. I thought that the end result of the mystery was pretty satisfying, and while I was able to make some guesses about parts of the protagonist’s past, the identity of the murderer was a bit of a surprise for me. I had a fantastic time getting to the bottom of this mystery, and the compelling murders that Swanson painted did an amazing job catching my attention and interest, which ensured that I powered through Rules for Perfect Murders in short order.
In addition to utilising a number of classic murder mystery tropes and techniques in Rules for Perfect Murders, Swanson also spends considerable time discussing or analysing a number of classic and iconic murder mystery novels. Swanson really dives in and does several mini reviews of a swath of great murder mystery novels, providing what I assume are his own opinions, while also examining the book’s featured murders, the strengths and weakness of their stories, the cultural impact that they had and so much more. The main focus is on the books that appeared on the fictional Eight Perfect Murders list which is made up of such classics as The Red House Mystery by A. A. Milne, Malice Aforethought by Anthony Berkeley Cox, The A.B.C. Murders by Agatha Christie, Double Indemnity by James M. Cain, Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith, The Drowner by John D. MacDonald, Deathtrap by Ira Levin and The Secret History by Donna Tartt. However, Swanson also references and discusses a bunch of other mystery novels, the plots of which or the lessons they contained often having some impact or bearing on the story. I loved this dive into each of these mystery novels, and I found it really cool that Swanson was able to insert his own opinions and obvious love from each of these books into this story.
Due to the author’s examination of all these classic novels, Rules for Perfect Murders is highly recommended for those hardcore murder mystery fans who are familiar with the books featured on the list, who will really love all the references and discussions that Swanson features throughout his novel. Those who are particularly knowledgeable about murder mystery stories will be able to guess where the story is going based on the literary clues the author leaves throughout the narrative. At the same time, Rules for Perfect Murders is also a great book for readers who are less familiar with these mystery novels. I personally have not read any of the eight books on the fictional list, although I was familiar with how some of the plots went. However, despite this lack of knowledge, I was in no way disadvantaged while reading Rules for Perfect Murders, as Swanson gives concise and knowledgeable summaries of each of the relevant books, which allowed me to follow the plot without any issues. I was able to appreciate most of the references that the author included throughout the book, and I am tempted to go out and read some of the featured books, as most of them sounded extremely interesting. I think that this examination and utilisation of classic murder mysteries works well with story Swanson came up with, and I honestly had fun learning more about these books and seeing the impact that they can have on a modern story.
It was kind of cool to read this novel from the perspective of a blogger and book reviewer, as this is novel written by a book lover, about a book lover. I found myself relating to the protagonist in a number of ways, and his observations about the joy books can bring really resonated with me. His habit of analysing the various books he reads is something many reviewers are going to appreciate, and I really liked that this novel is based around a best-of list. As someone who regularly produces top ten lists, I had a fun time with this concept, and I couldn’t help imagining what I would do in a similar situation (gasp, what if someone used my one of my lists to commit some crimes? Think about all the Star Wars themed murders that would happen!). I also had a good chuckle when the protagonist starting reminiscing about all the troubles he had creating his lists, such as leaving key books off, going back and reconsidering his choices and troubles with including entries that technically don’t belong on the list, as I have been there multiple times. This was a fun part of the book, which I rather enjoyed, although it didn’t take away from the darker tone of the book’s murder mystery and character elements.
Rules for Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson was a rather interesting and unique read that I am glad I decided to check out. Swanson crafts a fascinating and captivating tale, that not only contains a fantastic central whodunnit, but which acts as an amazing homage to the murder mystery genre. Filled with some excellent and entertaining elements, this is an outstanding read which I had a great time reading. This is a book perfect for all murder mystery fans, Swanson is definitely on my radar from now on, and I look forward to seeing what he writes next.