On a Mediterranean island, Julia Hart, a publisher, has tracked down Grant McAlister. McAlister was a professor of mathematics who worked out a set of rules to classify every type of murder mystery. He wrote a set of stories to illustrate the point, a set that was only printed privately, but now Julia wants to reprint for the modern day reader.
They take the stories one by one, but as they progress, a pattern seems to be emerging. A vague shape that seems to reference a real crime from the past starts to take shape – but who was the victim? And who was the murderer?
It seems odd that two books that deal with the truth and fiction of murder cases are published on the same day – this and Anthony Horowitz’s Moonflower Murders. They take very different approaches but the idea of fiction within fiction is common to both, in this case the seven short stories that are presented for the reader, and for Julia and Grant to discuss. Just as in Moonflower Murders, there is something hidden within the stories, but as I said, things go in very different directions.
I think Eight Detectives will end up being an acquired taste. It’s not the first book that deals with short stories with a framing sequence where something is going on within the framing – E & M A Radford’s Death and the Professor, for example, although to be fair, that only becomes apparent at the end. There’s many more twists and turns towards the end in this one but they ones that are mostly foreshadowed. Admittedly, one of them is foreshadowed too much, I think – the first main revelation can’t really be considered a surprise to the attentive reader (although, as ever, I give the caveat that I have read too much crime fiction.)
There’s also the fact that some of the short stories, purporting to be written in the late 1930s, actually have a more modern feel to them. But… this isn’t a reason for the mystery fan not to the read the book. Despite the stories having a darker feel to them than you might expect, there is something about them that I can’t mention, but if the reader was to read the first one, think that it was a bit unsatisfying and not read on, they would be missing something.
It’s an interesting experiment of a book, and it’s not perfect. One notable part of the conclusion, the rationale behind a common thread of elements in the stories, a thread that is necessary for the plot to progress the way it does, doesn’t really make any sense. It reminds me a tad of a line from Blackadder the Third, but I won’t say which one.
And the rules… Well, I can see what the author’s going for here, but they’re not rules, they’re a means of classification and if a Professor of Mathematics wrote a paper on that, Zeus alone knows which journal would have printed it. I can see why it inspires this set of stories, but it’s not something that you can hang a career on. I imagine non-mathematicians won’t have this problem, but as I do fall into that esteemed category – the intersection of mathematicians and crime fiction readers, one might say.
Overall, I’m a little divided on this one. It’s definitely worth a look, there are some really ambitious ideas here done in a very clever way. But there’s also some bits that niggled at me – by no means enough to spoil it, but niggles all the same. I’ll be very curious what other readers thought of it.