Rules For Perfect Murders (2020) by Peter Swanson

It all started with an innocent blogpost – a post about eight novels containing perfect murders. But years later, the post comes back to haunt the author. FBI Agent Gwen Mulvey is convinced that two recent murders are copycats of The ABC Murders and Double Indemnity. Kershaw is quickly convinced and begins to help the investigation.

But it seems that the story Kershaw is telling the reader is perhaps not the complete picture. He has his own reasons for believing the theory that a serial killer is using his list, and he needs to find the killer before the FBI – and before the killer finds him.

Well, how was I supposed to not want to look at a book like that? Especially with a glowing recommendation from Anthony (Magpie Murders) Horowitz.

This is a hard one to review as it’s a mash-up of a dip into the world of classic mysteries and our old friend the unreliable narrator. I really wanted this to be a clever classic-style mystery making full use of the author’s knowledge of the genre – like, for example, the aforementioned Magpie Murders – but instead, it’s a more standard modern thriller with, as I said, an unreliable narrator.

To be clear, it’s a very good example of that trope – the drip-feed of the secrets of the narrator is beautifully paced, and the link to the killer, and the theme of the tale is smart – and the tension cranks itself up to an exciting conclusion with a fitting finale. The narrator’s actions, including his unrevealed secrets, have a good sense of logic to them and the plot doesn’t just hinge on the unreliability, but has a life of its own, something not always the case in such thrillers.

However, if you’re looking for a mystery along the lines of The ABC Murders or another of the eight in the list – all of which are largely spoiled for the initiate to the classic mystery, along with The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd, and one, in hindsight, seems to have been chosen to service the plot – then best look elsewhere, as the identity of the killer, to me at least, seemed to come out of nowhere, and the thinking that puts Agent Mulvey on the right track at the start of the book is quite a leap of logic.

All niggles aside, this is a well-constructed page-turner of a thriller that is well worth your time. But you should probably read The ABC Murders and The Red House Mystery first.

Originally published in the US under the title Eight Perfect Murders (no idea why the title changed) this was is out now in the UK from Faber & Faber.

5 comments

  1. I was very intrigued by the premise and am keen to read this, but I have to admit that my experience with this author has not been a very happy one. He’s perfectly competent but leaves me strangely unsatisfied.

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  2. When you say that the classic crime novels are “largely spoiled” you do a great disservice to your readers. ALL of the books (and one play) are COMPLETELY spoiled for anyone not familiar with them. All of them! I couldn’t believe it. I read this book within days of reading your post and was hugely disappointed. I’ve not only warned people in a brief diatribe on Amazon but I’ve just posted my thoughts on my blog and dismiss the book entirely. Swanson’s plot was utterly transparent. I saw everything pages before he even hinted at the truth. I easily pegged the killer because this plot basically follows the template of a TV show that was popular in the US about six years ago. I’m avoiding Swanson’s books in the future.

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    • By largely, I did mean that most of them were spoiled, not that most of the plot of each was spoiled – I haven’t read Strangers On A Train but I don’t think there was much there that I didn’t already know.

      I did think it worked as a unreliable narrator thriller, but that’s not what Golden Age detective fiction fans are looking for, especially when the killer is guessable but not clued. But the use of the classic books is mishandled, the more I think about it, with choices made to suit the plot – the fact that the FBI agent notices the pattern in the first place still sticks in my head as bizarre.

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