for once in my life i’m glad i have the tendency to stockpile more books than i can read. this is my third date with peter swanson and he’s fast becoming my author-version of that friend you can call up anytime and be guaranteed a fun night out on the town.
these days i am easily distracted and my brain feels like porridge most of the time, so even pleasure reading has been difficult for me. but this was a short, fast, one-day delight of a book that made me remember what it was like to not have to struggle to concentrate and actually enjoy reading. i fell into this pretty easily and it held my attention throughout, so it’s comforting to know i have THREE other books by him floating around in these stacks.
this one is a particular gift for fans of mystery novels, and young booknerds who grew up into adulthood with unrealistic, unmet, expectations of how it was all gonna be:
Being an avid mystery reader as an adolescent does not prepare you for real life. I truly imagined that my adult existence would be far more booklike than it turned out to be. I thought, for example, that there would be several moments in which I got into a cab to follow someone. I thought I’d attend far more readings of someone’s will, and that I’d need to know how to pick a lock, and that any time I went on vacation (especially to old creaky inns or rented lake houses) something mysterious would happen. I thought train rides would inevitably involve a murder, that sinister occurrences would plague wedding weekends, and that old friends would constantly be getting in touch to ask for help, to tell me that their lives were in danger. I even thought quicksand would be an issue.
yet for our dear unreliable narrator mal—the mild-mannered co-owner of a mystery bookstore in boston—life is about to live up to the spirit if not the specifics (no quicksand, booo!) of his youthful expectations when he is visited, on a dark and snowstormy night, by special agent gwen mulvey of the FBI, who informs him that there’s a killer afoot who is treating the book list mal made for the store’s blog—a list of ‘eight perfect murders’—as a to-do list, and the bodies are piling up.
dunh dunh DUNH!
i love curating book lists and i am VERY GOOD AT IT. my much-mourned dream job was doing precisely this, and if any of my murdery lists had ever inspired a serial killer (blood on the snow! ’til death do us part! the killing games!), i would have been very flattered and ready to hunker down and talk about books all day long to help solve the crime, although i suspect my killer-catching skills are a distant second to my listmaking skills.
mal is decent at both, so he assists in the investigation, looking into several recent killings for connections either to the methods of murder or the philosophy of the murderers in the eight novels, sharing some, but not all, of what he discovers with gwen, for reasons. he will feel less conflicted about sharing with the reader the whos and hows and occasionally the whys of the murders in all eight books on his list. if you’ve already read these books, it’s fun to see them adapted into slightly different murdershapes for swanson’s purposes. if you haven’t, well, it’ll either be glass half empty and he spoils those books for you or glass half full and he saves you the trouble of reading them.
if you’re an avid mystery reader, you’ve probably read at least a few of them, and if you have, you’ll be savvy enough to predict a few moves that swanson’s book makes, but calling some of them early doesn’t diminish the fun of reading it at all; it’s like taking a meandering meta journey through mystery’s literary history—swanson incorporating elements from several different mystery subgenres before wrapping it all up in one big homage.
i am grateful that my porridge brain wan’t too lumpen to enjoy this, and i admire swanson’s confidence in writing this book, knowing that many people would be unwilling to read it because spoooooooilers.
these are the books on his list, which you will know things about if you read this book:
The A.B.C. Murders – Agatha Christie
Strangers on a Train – Patricia Highsmith
Deathtrap – Ira Levin
The Red House Mystery – A. A. Milne
Malice Aforethought – Anthony Berkeley Cox
Double Indemnity – James M. Cain
The Drowner – John D. Macdonald
The Secret History – Donna Tartt