Oh, the guilt of the books we haven’t read. The classics, the bestsellers, the touchstones of a genre … and then there’s that ever-increasing stack of newer releases that you’ll get to, one of these days. You’ll love these books, or at least admire them, but great ones will forever keep slipping through the cracks.

Which, truth be told, was my first reaction when I picked up an advance copy of Peter Swanson’s Eight Perfect Murders (Harper Collins) and flipped it over. I couldn’t wait to devour it — I’ve been a fan of Swanson’s previous thrillers for some time (The Kind Worth Killing: Wow) — but the premise of this new thriller, ingenious as it was, sparked that old guilt.


Here’s the gist: The narrator, Malcolm Kershaw, is the proprietor of Old Devils Bookstore, a mystery bookshop in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston. A few years back, he posted a piece on the store’s blog. It was an incredible list — his choices for “the eight perfect murders” in all of mystery fiction. When the FBI shows up at his bookstore in the midst of a blizzard, Malcolm learns that someone appears to be using that list to commit a series of murders. A sort of high-concept, literary serial killer, if you will.

These eight mysteries are classics, the titles tastefully chosen, with books released over a span of seventy years from 1922 to 1992: A.A. Milne’s The Red House Mystery, Anthony Berkley Cox’s Malice Aforethought, Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, John D. MacDonald’s The Drowner, Ira Levin’s Deathtrap and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. It’s a rather impressive collective when it comes to creative ways of killing.

I like to think of myself as rather well read in the genre, but the shameful truth is that I’ve read only half of the books on Swanson’s list. Would I get this book as intended, as an informed reviewer, without first reading all the source material?

I needn’t have worried, and neither should you. This wonderfully spun thriller delivers regardless of whether you’re familiar with the eight classics in question. Swanson provides a concise synopsis of each novel on the list in the book’s early pages. In any case,  you’ll likely seek out the ones you’re unfamiliar with.


The murders at the core of each classic are brilliant in their own way. Though, the devil here is not all that interested in the details. Kershaw tells FBI Agent Mulvey: It’s about “the philosophies behind them … it’s about doing them right. There are rules.”

It’s the underlying art and structure of these killings that Swanson is after. His intricate plot deconstructs each murder — and the entire machinery at work behind the mystery genre — while building an original whodunit on the shoulders of masters.

It’s also important to note that his narrator shares a popular trait with more recent classics — he is totally unreliable. There’s a reason he’s drawn the interest of a federal agent, and it’s not just because of his clever blog post and his bookstore’s indie cred. Malcolm Kershaw has something to hide. No spoiler there — he admits it early and often. When he shares his nasty secret, the plot moves into overdrive, but it never spins out of control.

When I picked up the book at Bouchercon — the World Mystery Convention — last fall in Dallas, it was already getting plenty of buzz in the mingling Hyatt lobby and bar. “That is one of those books that librarians love to recommend,” said one notably influential librarian when she saw me holding it. For good reason — it’s an ideal book club pick for lovers of the genre.

Readers of Eight Perfect Murders will not only have a smart modern thriller to discuss, they’ll have eight excellent classics to rediscover in the process — I plan to get to those other four shortly!

For more on Peter Swanson, please visit his website.

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Peter Swanson is the author of six novels, including The Kind Worth Killing, winner of the New England Society Book Award, and finalist for the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger. His books have been translated into over 30 languages, and his stories, poetry, and features have appeared in Asimov’s Science FictionThe Atlantic MonthlyMeasureThe GuardianThe Strand Magazine, and Yankee Magazine.

A graduate of Trinity College, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Emerson College, he lives in Somerville, Massachusetts with his wife and cat.