Rules For Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson

The Blurb On The Back:

If you want to get away with murder, play by the rules.

A series of unsolved murders with one thing in common: each of the deaths bears an eerie resemblance to the crimes depicted in classic mystery novels.

The deaths lead FBI Agent Gwen Mulvey to Boston’s Old Devils bookshop.  Owner Malcolm Kershaw had once posted an online article titled ‘My Eight Favourite Murders’, and there seems to be a deadly link between the deaths and his list – which includes Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers On A Train and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.

Can the killer be stopped before all eight of these perfect murders have been re-enacted? 

You can order Rules For Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson from Amazon USAAmazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

It’s winter 2015.  Widower Malcolm Kershaw is part-owner and manager of the Old Devil’s bookshop in Boston.  His co-owner Brian Murray (the author of the bestselling Ellis Fitzgerald detective mysteries) is a silent partner more interested in booze and old stories than running the store and who generally leaves Malcolm to it.  Old Devils focuses on mysteries, a genre that Malcolm particularly enjoys and has a special interest in.  

Malcolm had worked for the shop’s previous owner and set up a blog to drum up interest in the shop, although he didn’t keep it going for long and the entries soon petered out.  One of those posts was made in 2004 and entitled Eight Perfect Murders where he listed his favourite perfect murders in crime fiction, although it didn’t get a lot of interest and Malcolm hasn’t really thought about it in years, not until FBI agent Gwen Mulvey contacts him about a series of murders that she’s investigating – Robin Callahan (a controversial local news anchor who advocated adultery and was found shot 18 months earlier), Jay Bradshaw (a local man found beaten to death in his garage), Ethan Byrd (a college student who went missing and whose body was later found buried in a state park) and Elaine Johnson (a woman who died of a heart attack after a suspected break in at her house).  

None of the victims were what would be considered “nice” people and Mulvey thinks that someone is using the plots of the books in Malcolm’s blog to create perfect murders.  She wants his help in taking another look at the deaths, hopeful that his knowledge of murder mysteries and the books on his list will mean he spots something the original investigators may have missed.

But while Malcolm is happy enough to assist, there’s a secret in his past that he needs to keep hidden – a secret that crosses over uncomfortably with her investigation …

Peter Swanson’s mystery thriller has a great premise and makes good use of the idea of the perfect murder while respectfully discussing the 8 books at the heart of its plot.  However every character other than Malcolm is under-developed to the point of being little more than a plot device and having guessed the twist very early on, I found the book to be predictable towards the end so while it’s not a terrible read, it’s not a great one either.

I picked this up because I’d read a few of Peter Swanson’s previous books and was intrigued by the premise here, i.e. that a killer could use the premise of 8 books – each featuring the idea of a “perfect murder” – and apply it to fresh murders. I was familiar with the plots of some of the books here – THE SECRET HISTORY by Donna Tartt, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN by Patricia Highsmith, DOUBLE INDEMNITY by James M. Cain, and THE ABC MURDERS by Agatha Christie – but THE DROWNER by John D MacDonald, MALICE AFORETHOUGHT by Anthony Berkeley Cox, THE RED HOUSE MYSTERY by A A Milne, and DEATHTRAP by Ira Levin were all new to me.  Swanson weaves a good summary of the plots into this novel and while, of necessity, he does give away the endings through his narrator Malcolm, he conveys a real love for the texts, which made me want to go and read them myself.

Swanson gives Malcolm a convincing voice that draws you in and I enjoyed learning his history, how his store works and his relationship with his dead wife, Claire (who died in a car accident a few years earlier).  It’s interesting to see his literary takes on the deaths that Mulvey is investigating and how he draws on his wider expertise of crime fiction and there’s also fun to be had on his asides on his business partner and how his books have tailed off in quality in recent years.

The problem is that once Malcolm tells you his secret connection to the deaths, a lot of the other plot developments start to become obvious, which takes away a lot of the tension.  This is exacerbated by the fact that Mulvey is such an under-drawn character and there’s not really much of a relationship between the two of them on the page – certainly not enough to create meaningful stakes between them.  This is a shame because I think the book really needed some kind of personal connection because none of the other characters is given much in the way of depth either and in the case of Brian (who doesn’t make an appearance until half way through) and Marty Kingship (an ex cop who Malcolm hangs out with from time to time).  Marty is actually the weakest of the characters given a plot development and I did find his introduction and treatment to be very disappointing.

This isn’t to say that the book is bad.  I kept turning the pages and was enjoying it up until the three-quarter mark but it did fall apart for me in that final quarter, in part because of some big leaps in the storytelling, but also because I had guessed most of the big reveals.  As such, I thought this was an okay read and it did make me want to check out some of the books mentioned within the plot, so it’s worth checking out on that basis.  

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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