Rules for Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson

Published by Faber & Faber

What do Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train and The Secret History by Donna Tartt have in common, besides being written by three of the cleverest female writers of the 20th and 21st centuries? They all contain guidelines to pulling off a perfect murder, and are in other such company as Double Indemnity by James M. Cain and The Red House History, the only adult mystery written by AA Milne, better known of course for his charming little bear named Pooh.

They join Malice Aforethought by Anthony Berkeley Cox, The Drowner by John D. McDonald and Ira Levin’s Deathtrap on the list compiled by bookstore owner Malcolm Kershaw on a defunct blog, which seems to be the inspiration for a series of killings being perpetrated around Boston. It’s FBI agent Gwen Mulvey who has made the tenuous connections, and upon paying Malcolm a visit to his book shop during a wintery storm becomes ever more convinced that her hunch is correct.

Malcolm cannot help but agree and is happy to help the investigator with her enquiries, for more reasons than solely a desire to seek justice. It would appear that one of the victims has a connection to him, and that any digging around these particular murders may just uncover some incidents from his own past that he’d prefer kept hidden from the law. And so by keeping his friends close and the FBI agent closer, Malcolm can stay one step ahead of them all.

Rules for Perfect Murders is the crime mystery I’d been looking for; short chapters, twists and turns, inventive premise and potential to be read over one or two lengthy sittings. It’s not high literature by any means, but nevertheless has the same lofty pretentions that our protagonist and narrator Malcolm does; he’s the purveyor of mystery novels at his specialist store yet no longer reads them himself, for reasons that become clear. This list was devised many years before, and has now come back to haunt him.

Here’s a pandemic project for you; read all eight books suggested as being perfect examples of how to get away with murder before diving in to the book proper. The books on the list are mostly classics, or their screen adaptations have since eclipsed them so a quick watch of the movies would do just as well. It’s by no means a requirement to have knowledge of the books beforehand but the main plots are delved into and discussed quite a lot, so if you had been meaning to getting round to The Secret History you might want to do that first.

They’re not the only ones touched upon; the bookshop Malcolm owns is dedicated to crime and mystery, and many of the characters have more than passing interests in the genre, hence there are quite a few off-the-topic, sometimes meandering tangents dedicated to yet more books (both real and fictional) that aren’t on the list. For instance, I had to gloss over the bits pertaining to another Christie classic that I haven’t read, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which popped up frequently.

It should go without saying though, that this is one for the crime fans among us. The subject itself is compelling enough, and the various characters, both red herrings and significant outliers to the story, hit all the typical marks. Malcolm is that rare of things, a reliable narrator, but he makes sure to hold his cards to his chest until the very last minute. The plot turns out to be more complex than first meets the eye, although it’s tightly wound and easy to follow.

I started this during the stormy weather from last Thursday, which was the perfect accompaniment to the tone of the story, although finishing it in sunshine a few days later didn’t diminish the fast paced, fun and in places dark read. Swanson is certainly skilled at fleshing out supporting characters and giving them witty, distinctive dialogue to work with, and is equally as good at driving the story forward (although there is some over laborious repetition of the main plot points of the eight novels on the list). Need an intelligent yet fairly light distraction that will divert you for a few hours? Then this is your man.

First published in The Tuam Herald on 27 05 20.

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