Eight Detectives (2020) by Alex Pavesi

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.

11 comments

  1. Strange. I am currently reading a very slightly differently titled book “The Eighth Detective” by Alex Pavesi (Henry Holt & Co.). But it seems that both are the same !

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  2. I read this, and didn’t really care for it. The story-discussion-story-discussion structure palled pretty quickly, and then the final chapters jam in all manner of unearned revelations from a telenovella. And then it just kinda…stops.

    Plus, the reason behind it all eluded me — person X would go to all this effort because…why, exactly? And I feel that the whole “mathematics of murder” framing (yes, I’m aware Pavesi studied Mathematics to PhD level) is painfully facile. That might be our common “esteemed category”, but to study the discipline to such a high level and then call this ‘Mathematics’ is baffling.

    For all the promise promised here, I felt the book overall delivered on very little of it. The first chapter’s good, but it’s downhill pretty quickly thereafter.

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    • The more I think about it, since writing the review, the more the seemingly unending praise baffles me. I’m going to go into a bit more detail that I usually do, but I’ll do it in ROT13 as it is spoiler-heavy:

      1: Gur svefg fgbel vf BX, ohg gur erny raqvat znxrf vg zhpu orggre. Gur frpbaq fgbel naq zbfg bs gur fhofrdhrag barf ner, va zl bcvavba, qrprag rabhtu jvgu gur erny raqvatf, ohg jvgu gur snxr barf, gurl’er abg cnegvphyneyl fghaavat. Juvpu vf n tbbq jnl bs znxvat gur ernqre chg gur obbx qbja, nf gurl qba’g xabj gur erny raqvatf ner pbzvat.

      2. Bjarefuvc bs n obbx bs fubeg fgbevrf vf jbegu xvyyvat bire? Gur xvyyre qvqa’g frrz gb or vafnar sbe gur erfg bs gurve yvirf, ohg jul ba rnegu jbhyq lbh xvyy fbzrbar sbe guvf?

      3. Chggvat gur yvaxf gb gur zheqre va gur obbx vf cheryl gb freivpr gur cybg – jvgubhg gurz, gur gehgu jbhyqa’g unir pbzr bhg, abg gur jubyr gehgu naljnl, ohg gurl ner bayl gurer gb sbez n yvax gb gur raqvat.

      Fb gurer’f gbb zhpu, ernyyl, gung vf qbar gb znxr gur vqrn jbex, gung qbrfa’g ernyyl znxr zhpu frafr. Nf V fnvq, vg’f na vagrerfgvat rkcrevzrag bs n fgehpgher – be vg jbhyq or vs vg unqa’g orra qbar orsber – naq V guvax vg’f jbegu ybbxvat ng, ohg zber bhg bs phevbfvgl.

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      • I agree with what you say here, especially Point 2 — which I shall expand on in rot13 below:

        Gur fgbevrf ner terng, fb ur xvyyf gur bevtvany nhgube naq…nqqf fbzr fgnttrevatyl inthr qrgnvyf vagb gur cybgf naq inavgl choyvfurf gur pbyyrpgvba fb gung bayl 100 pbcvrf ner rire va rkvfgrapr? Jr nyy xabj gung nal nhgube va n “V jnag gb gnyx gb lbh nobhg lbhe zbfg snzbhf obbx” abiry qvqa’g jevgr gur obbx — gung’f byqre guna gur uvyyf — ohg ng yrnfg gubfr nhgubef jrag ba gb or fhpprffshy ba gur onpx bs gung fgbyra abiry. Urer vg’f whfg…abguvat.

        This really is one of those books that sounds like a great idea, and then you sit down to write it and realise it doesn’t work. Pavesi deserves credit for sticking with an obviously sinking ship in seeing it through, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone as an example of what the genre does well in the modern age.

        Stuart Turton’s The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle — now <i<there is a blindingly good modern take on the hoary old novel of detection. And Anthony Horowitz seems to have his finger well and truly on the pulse of upending-while-honouring genre trappings. This, to my way of thinking, simply does not favourably compare.

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      • I’ll be honest, I thought, as they were coming out on the same day, I’d have two cracking titles to decide between, but they is unfortunately no real competition, as Moonflower Murders is simply brilliant. Long, but brilliant.

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  3. I have read the book. I found it utterly dull except for the first story. Simply cannot be compared to Moonflower Murders !

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  4. It’s always interesting to me that books of this sort get dissected with a pathologist’s precision. I read all of the encoded comments and think it’s a lot of nitpicking for a story that is about stories and fiction and the art of creating. You want realism in something like this? Waste of time to treat it that way.

    Something neither you nor JJ mention is the writing style. I found it cold and distant and rather off putting. I nearly quit reading. Often his sentence construction was poor, his odd metaphors created just be clever. He’s a novice writer but I don’t think he has a real understanding of how to make characters seem real. Not BE real, but seem real. And in that regard he fits very well into the humdrum school where plot is everything.

    It’s most definitely an experimental work of fiction. I think I see what he intended and I went along for the ride. I never understand trying to approach this type of homage as if it were “realistic”. It so obviously was never meant to be.

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