Review: Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson

Review: Eight Perfect Murders by Peter SwansonEight Perfect Murders (Malcolm Kershaw, #1) by Peter Swanson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, thriller
Pages: 270
Published by William Morrow on March 3, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes &

A chilling tale of psychological suspense and an homage to the thriller genre tailor-made for fans: the story of a bookseller who finds himself at the center of an FBI investigation because a very clever killer has started using his list of fiction’s most ingenious murders.
Years ago, bookseller and mystery aficionado Malcolm Kershaw compiled a list of the genre’s most unsolvable murders, those that are almost impossible to crack—which he titled “Eight Perfect Murders”—chosen from among the best of the best including Agatha Christie’s A. B. C. Murders, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, Ira Levin’s Death Trap, A. A. Milne's Red House Mystery, Anthony Berkeley Cox's Malice Aforethought, James M. Cain's Double Indemnity, John D. Macdonald's The Drowner, and Donna Tartt's A Secret History.
But no one is more surprised than Mal, now the owner of the Old Devils Bookshop in Boston, when an FBI agent comes knocking on his door one snowy day in February. She’s looking for information about a series of unsolved murders that look eerily similar to the killings on Mal’s old list. And the FBI agent isn’t the only one interested in this bookseller who spends almost every night at home reading. The killer is out there, watching his every move—a diabolical threat who knows way too much about Mal’s personal history, especially the secrets he’s never told anyone, even his recently deceased wife.
To protect himself, Mal begins looking into possible suspects—and sees a killer in everyone around him. But Mal doesn’t count on the investigation leaving a trail of death in its wake. Suddenly, a series of shocking twists leaves more victims dead—and the noose around Mal’s neck grows so tight he might never escape.

My Review:

There are reliable narrators, there are unreliable narrators, and then there’s Malcolm Kershaw, who is such an unreliable narrator that by the end of the story it feels like the only thing he told us at the beginning that is still true at the end is that Nero the store cat is a cat.

After all, even the CAT’S role in the story changes at least twice over the course of the narrative. But at least he’s still the same species. It’s hard to be sure that anything else we thought we knew at the beginning is true at the end.

The story begins, or at least we think it begins, when an FBI agent visits bookseller Malcolm Kershaw at his mystery-specializing bookstore, Old Devils, on a snowy Boston winter’s day.

She’s following a thin lead that’s really more of a hunch. Actually, calling it a hunch may even be dignifying it slightly. She’s grasping at straws in a series of unsolved murders that may not even be a series – as much as she wants it to be.

It’s possible, just barely, that someone is following a template accidentally laid out by Kershaw many years ago in a blog post he called “Eight Perfect Murders”. It was a list of books – well, that’s not a surprise. But it’s a list of books that he thought at the time, rather pretentiously, narrated tales of murders that should have managed to fool the police. In other words, perfect murders where the murder is never even suspected, let alone caught.

Kershaw agrees to help her investigate her hunch. He’s a bit flattered to be contacted by the FBI, and a bit worried that it’s going to bring up his wife’s death five years before. His wife died on another winter’s night, on a remote and snowy road, on her way back from her lover’s house, while drunk or high on cocaine or a bit of both. Her death, and the death of her lover a year or so later, were both suspicious. But Malcolm just-so-happened to be out of town at bookseller conventions at the time of both deaths, so he’s in the clear.

And he’s intrigued by the possibilities of someone using his old list as a template for serial killing. Or so we believe.

As the story unravels, we get a tour through some of the classics of the murder mystery genre as seen through the eyes of an aficionado of that genre. Only to discover, in the end, that we’ve been reading one all along.

Escape Rating B-: There have been a few complaints that the story in Eight Perfect Murders, in addition to being told by the most unreliable of unreliable narrators, spoils the plots of the eight stories that might be what the murderer uses to carry out his or her murder spree. While on the one hand that’s true, very much on the other the most recent book of the bunch was published in 1992 and the others are much older. There has GOT TO BE a limit on spoiler warnings somewhere, and 28 years is definitely past it.

The story is being told from inside Malcolm Kershaw’s head. He’s our narrator, he’s our point of view of the action, and he’s also telling the story from a perspective that ALSO mimics a classic in the genre, but we don’t discover that until the end. So I’m not saying what or which one.

But the thing about unreliable narrators, and it is clear very early on that Kershaw is at least somewhat unreliable about his own past, is that they lie. They lie to everyone around them. And in the very best/worst of cases, meaning the very epitome of unreliability, they lie to themselves. So even though he seems to be relating events as he really sees them, he’s still filtering everything through a lens of the lies he’s told himself and the lies he’s told the world.

It’s only as he gets deeper into the puzzle that we begin to realize that either we never had all the pieces or that the picture we think we’re solving doesn’t match the box. It doesn’t, in the end, even match the picture on the box that Kershaw thought he was working on.

In the end, Eight Perfect Murders as a story feels more like a thought experiment than an actual murder mystery. The problem for me as a reader is that I didn’t find Kershaw all that sympathetic as a character. He starts out bland and boring, and while the things that happen in the story are anything but, he’s still bland and boring at the end.

This is in sharp contrast to another mystery thriller with an unreliable narrator that I read this year, This is How I Lied. Even though she both lied and was lied to, as Kershaw is, I felt for her and felt like I understood where she was coming from and how she got that way. She felt for herself in a way that Kershaw does not. So her story kept me glued to it until the end, while his just made me want to find out whodunnit and what it was they’d actually done so I could close the book.

One final comment. The Goodreads entry leads the reader to believe that this is the first of a series. Admittedly the ending could just be another piece of misdirection on Kershaw’s part. But if it ends the way it seems to, the way that the mystery it’s mimicking does, then a sequel is impossible. Or Kershaw is lying again. He could very well be THAT unreliable.

We’ll see.