Rules For Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson

Rules For Perfect Murders is a quietly unassuming mystery that pays a stylish homage to quirks and nuances of mystery books and their fans. Don’t be fooled by its unhurried pace … there’s more going on here than meets the eye!

An ingenious game of cat-and-mouse
The Times

what it says on the cover …

If you want to get away with murder, play by the rules.

Years ago Malcolm Kershaw wrote a list of his ‘Eight Favourite Murders’ for his Old Devils mystery bookshop blog. Among others, it included those from Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Now, just before Christmas, Malcolm finds himself at the heart of an investigation – as an FBI agent believes someone may be re-enacting each of the murders on his list.

Can the killer be stopped before they get away with eight perfect murders?

SHELF: mystery | suspense
MY RATING: ★★★☆☆
AUTHOR: Peter Swanson
PUBLISHER: Faber & Faber
FORMATS: Paperback | Hardback | Kindle
PUBLISHED: March 2020

anyone who killed people for money was not someone I wanted to be involved with

my review

Rules For Perfect Murders is narrated by Malcolm (Mal) Kershaw who owns Old Devils; a delightful-sounding bookshop specialising in mystery books.  Several years ago Mal wrote an article for the shop’s blog, positing eight crime fiction novels that he felt featured the most ingenious, foolproof murders.  Early one snowy morning a knock at the bookshop door brings this long-forgotten article crashing back into Mal’s otherwise quiet life, when FBI Agent, Gwen Mulvey, asks for his assistance with a series of unsolved murders.  At first glance, the crimes are random and bear no connection, but with Mal’s blog article as a frame of reference the perspective changes considerably.

Mal is a man of contradictions.  He’s a quiet, bookish man who lives an almost frugal existence at home – multipack cans of beer and takeout baguettes – and yet when he meets friends his tastes change to oysters and martinis.  His social circle is small; day to day he only sees his employees Emily and Brandon, and Nero the bookshop cat, occasionally socialising with Brian, his business partner.  I was drawn to him almost immediately; his love of books and cats created an impression of familiarity – someone I’d choose to befriend in my own life – and it was almost impossible not to feel compassion towards his genuine grief at the death of his wife Claire. 

The role of the narrator is an influential one, and Mal appears to be inclined to share almost all his thoughts with the reader.  Through present day events, and historical recollections, I was carried along with the story Mal was sharing; his suspicions, his revelations, and his portrayal of facts. His knowledge of the mystery genre shouldn’t be underestimated; he’s a suspense aficionado, and his own narrative, whilst seemingly frank and open, is also carefully constructed. 

The first twist punches its way out of the pages quite early in the book. It was unexpected, and it forced me to recalibrate the Mal I was picturing in my mind.  Yet the progression of the story, and the impression that Mal’s skeletons had now been aired, lull me back into my previous sense of security.  I was drawn back in by the easy, unforced relationship that Mal and Gwen struck up, sharing in Mal’s enjoyment at becoming so closely involved in an active investigation.  

As the story developed I became increasingly aware of the sublime interplay between the plots of the perfect murder books, and Mal’s own narrative.  They were artfully subtle; I can’t recall at exactly what point I first became aware of them, but once I did I was tempted to start the book from the beginning and to be more observant.  

The eight books in the list cast a nostalgic golden-age glow over the book. Mal’s list of novels includes iconic crime fiction authors such as Patricia Highsmith, James M. Cain, Agatha Christie and Donna Tart, so it’s perhaps no surprise that Rules For Perfect Murders has an unmistakably noir atmosphere. Whilst I enjoyed the directive role these books play in the plot, I felt at times that Mal’s ruminations occasionally delved a bit too deeply into them; this occasionally became a little repetitive, causing the tension to falter somewhat.  Having said that, Rules For Perfect Murders has presented me with a superb compendium of mystery novel recommendations, successfully bolstering my already burgeoning TBR tower!

Rules For Perfect Murders is a stylish and well-written mystery novel that will undoubtedly appeal to fans of this genre.  Its pace is leisurely, with a quiet sense of unease and tension that intensify without fanfare, towards an ending that brings a fatalistic sense of completion.  

Thank you to the publishers, Faber & Faber, and to #NetGalley for granting me this copy of Rules For Perfect Murders in return for an honest review.

peter swanson

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, Her Every Fear, an NPR book of the year; and his most recent, Eight Perfect Murders. 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.

#RulesForPerfectMurders | @PeterSwanson3| @FaberBooks | #NetGalley
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