Rules for Perfect Murders (Peter Swanson) – book review

Mystery writer Peter Swanson has a knack for writing mystery novels which do exactly what they are supposed to do, which is to intrigue whilst entertaining.  Rules for Perfect Murders is a bit of a love letter for crime fiction fans with all the right ingredients for an atmospheric session of mystery reading – a bookshop, a cat, rabid mystery fans and prized collections of classic crime novels.

If there was such a thing required as a set of handy hints in how to kill another human being without being caught, the place to find such would be in the works of classic mystery fiction.  Bookseller Malcolm Kershaw wrote his article ‘My Eight Favourite Murders’ years ago as a blog post for his employer and never dreamed it would be one day be used as guidebook for a killer with a literary twist.

Paid a visit by a keen FBI agent who believes that Mal could have some valuable insight as to a string of killings which seem to be inspired by novels such as Agatha Christie’s work The ABC Murders,  Mal becomes very keen to find out who might be working their way through his list of books for homicidal inspiration.  The killer though still has some work to do in order to tick off all eight books.

Until the death of his wife, Mal had considered crime and mystery novels the absolute favourites of his book collection.  In recent years though, Mal hasn’t been able to face even fictional deaths on the page. The mini reviews that Mal provides for patrons of his mystery bookshop are cobbled from blurbs and opinions he finds on the internet, and his life as a bookseller has become something of a cliché.  Mal hasn’t abandoned all his hopes and dreams, but he recognizes that he has certainly settled for an uneventful life.

Mal isn’t stupid enough to believe that Agent Mulvey has been keeping him near just for his book knowledge – she suspects he knows a lot more than what he is passing onto her. Which is fair enough, as he certainly does.  The closer he is to the investigation, the more Mal can ascertain the possible danger to himself.

Classic crime fiction seems to be having a recent resurge in popularity as we’re all about rules and regulations right now.  Swanson writes novels that conform to classical crime fiction frameworks – the affable and perfectly reasonable yet unreliable narrator, a protagonist who invites trouble in close in order to examine it, the incrementally revealed backstory to cloud and introduce doubt.

An everyman protagonist that invites the reader to both cosy up and yet not trust everything he is saying is always a interesting literary device to work with.  Is the narrator being dangerously forthcoming, is he practicing self-preservation?  Is he inviting trouble intentionally, or being naïve to think the eyes of suspicion will not soon be turned upon his efforts?

Hands up, two thirds into Rules for Perfect Murders I began to experience a bit of reader’s eye glaze in regards to the possible linkage between its present day and fictional murders. The joy in reading this book is in the perfect little affirmations of the importance of reading.  Swanson always writes with the reader in mind, and it’s a cert going in we are going to be completely transported away and tucked up close.

Books are time travel. True readers all know this. Books don’t just take you back to the time in which they were written; they can take you back to different versions of yourself.

The work of Peter Swanson hit the ‘don’t worry about the blurb, just read it’ category some time ago and Rules of Perfect Murders confirms his author’s place in my reading stable of superstars. This is enjoyable escapism in the safe hands of an author who has absolute respect for the genre in which he is rapidly mastering his craft.

Rules for Perfect Murders (titled Eight Perfect Murders elsewhere) is the sixth novel for author Peter Swanson and has been published by Allen and Unwin.

Andy Thompson

Other reviews you might enjoy: