Rules for Perfect Murders

Peter Swanson

Faber, £12.99

Review by Malcolm Forbes

“A murderer is always a gambler,” proclaims Hercule Poirot in Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders. “And, like many gamblers, a murderer often doesn’t know when to stop.” The murderer who stalks the pages of Peter Swanson’s latest thriller takes risks and defies the odds but knows exactly when to stop. He or she is a maniac on a mission, dead-set on completing a “project” consisting of eight different variations of murder.

Our narrator is Malcolm Kershaw, the owner of a Boston bookshop which specialises in mystery titles. One day, on the eve of a gathering snowstorm, he gets a visit from FBI Agent Gwen Mulvey. She has been working on a series of unsolved and seemingly unconnected murders. Now, however, she has discovered a pattern.

She reminds Malcolm of a list he wrote some years ago for his bookshop’s blog called “Eight Perfect Murders”. His choices for “the cleverest, the most ingenious, the most foolproof” murders in crime fiction range from the Golden Age of the detective novel to the modern day, and take in The ABC Murders, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Gwen believes that a copycat killer is using the list as a guide, each time re-enacting the brutal crime in the novel and quite literally getting away with murder.

Malcolm agrees to help Gwen with her enquiries – accompanying her to crime scenes, comparing and contrasting the real murders with their fictional counterpart, and rereading the books on his list in a bid to anticipate the killer’s next move. But problems quickly arise. Malcolm is sceptical about a positive outcome: someone who successfully mimics these murders is likely to be undetectable. Complicating matters further is the fact that he knows one of the victims. Then he hears from a reader of his blog who confesses to being halfway through his list. “When I’m finished,” the user writes, “I’ll get in touch. Or do you already know who I am?”

Deftly plotted, frantically paced and brilliantly suspenseful, Rules for Perfect Murders is a supremely accomplished murder mystery, one which doffs its hat to classics from the genre while simultaneously pulling off new tricks. Swanson ensures that his reader is wrong-footed at regular intervals. Just when we think we have a handle on what he is up to and where he is going, we come up against a sharp turn or a fresh twist.

The book’s title suggests it is a manual; in actual fact it is a memoir filled with all manner of exploits and revelations. Malcolm insists that he is a reliable narrator, telling us the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And yet we take stock of his cryptic comments, bad dreams and delayed revelations – including one game-changing, image-altering confession about a dark chapter from his past which left him with blood on his hands. Has this man who has spent years “in fictional realms built on deceit” constructed one of his own? Or if we do decide to trust him, what are we to make of his lust for vengeance and lack of remorse?

Those who have yet to be blindsided by Malcolm’s recommended reads will be disappointed by his creator’s decision to give away main plot-lines and the crucial whodunit – particularly that of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, arguably Christie’s most jaw-dropping big reveal. But spoilers might be a small price to pay when weighed against the novel’s considerable plus-points, from the full arsenal of gripping special effects to the insightful asides on writing and reading. “Books don’t just take you back to the time in which they were written,” Malcolm declares; “they can take you back to different versions of yourself.”

Ignore the more fanciful elements and suspend all disbelief. Once Swanson’s narrative is powered up it is hard not to remain rapt until the bitter end.