The front door opened, and I heard the stamp of the FBI agent’s feet on the doormatEight Perfect Murders, Chapter 1 opening
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 Bookstore 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.From Goodreads
Peter Swanson’s mystery/thriller Eight Perfect Murders has notable draw for anyone deep in the weeds of ‘bookish’ culture, and universal appeal as a solid read for those who aren’t. Main character Malcolm’s store, Old Devils Bookstore, is a perfect backdrop for this story of novel-inspired crime. It’s a specialty bookstore dealing in mystery and crime books co-owned by Mal and a prolific writer, Brian, who spends most of his time away from the store writing or drinking. Years before taking over, Mal worked in the shop as an employee. It was during this time that he wrote the infamous blog post “Eight Perfect Murders” in which he details his top book picks for murders that would be practically impossible to solve. Although popular at the time it’s long been forgotten and relegated to the blog archives. That is until FBI Agent Gwen Mulvey steps into the store with a series of murders potentially tied to the post. We follow Mal and Agent Gwen as they track the murders and attempt to find the culprit before they run their way through the full list.
Malcolm is a kind but awkward man, passionate about books. He finds fulfillment in the small interactions he has with fellow readers who stop by the store, and enjoys the occasional chat with his employees. Overall he appears quite innocuous, living a quiet life ever since his wife Claire died. As a reader he first appeared seemed sweet and relatable, and I enjoyed following his story. I’d probably read more books with him as the central character if there were any. There’s of course some level of suspicion in regards to the odd connection between his blog post and the ongoing murders, though, so while he’s likeable my trust for him as a completely innocent man is halting. From their interactions it’s clear Agent Gwen isn’t entirely sold on his innocence either. As the book unfolds we learn more about the man behind the shop, growing more complex as the chapters turn over.
On the other hand Agent Gwen was mostly unremarkable to me – a standard law enforcer attempting to catch the killer. At first her investigation seems to be a stretch at best, but strong instincts push her forward despite the lack of support from her colleagues. Over time it seems her suspicions may have merit but perhaps not in the way she expected. Agent Gwen and Mal become tentative friends, checking out crime scenes and conferring about books together. I enjoyed their friendship and found their discussions about the books fun to read, but I believe that’s more due to the content, writing style, and favor towards Mal’s character than Agent Gwen.
Malcolm also owns a cat, Nero, who I’d be remiss to leave out as a surprisingly central (and adorable!) piece of the puzzle. Nero patrols the bookstore, greeting patrons and nuzzling up to them as they shop. But Nero has an unexpected and shocking past, too, which comes to light later in the book. (I’ll clear the air right away though – Nero isn’t the killer 😂.) I was delighted Peter Swanson integrated the cat into the plot rather than leaving Nero as a charming side note.
From a pacing standpoint the book begins a bit slower, almost leaning towards a cozy mystery until the pace gradually quickens. Tensions strain as murders increase and Malcolm’s anxiety rises, concerned not only that the murder may be specifically targeting him but also worried about the connection to events of his past. From the last third of the book on an incredible amount of details are revealed. This book as a fun read and held my attention through the end. I did wish we as readers had an opportunity to see inside the murder’s mind, since the rationale was fascinating when it was revealed, but other than that I don’t have many nits for this book.
Overall I loved the bookseller murder mystery angle and found Peter Swanson did an excellent job drawing surprising elements into the story. An advanced warning that this book does contain spoilers for the number of other popular mystery books referenced, since they’re relevant to how the murders are being executed. I’d recommend this to anyone who enjoys a bookseller/bookshop feature and likes investigative mystery/thrillers.
TW: addiction, molestation, suicide