Swanson skewers the 20th-century's greatest crime novels, fashioning his murder mystery around a first-person narrative that reflects the most prominent of Agatha Christie's works. The author's sophisticated prose shepherds a nascent sense of danger as Malcolm Kershaw, owner of the Old Devil's Bookshop in Beacon Hill, Boston, stumbles upon nefarious characters and suspicious goings-on with the same propensity as Christie's Miss Marple--but with an edgier, more modern, at times ferocious twist to his fate.
A diffident, solitary man, Malcolm--now a widower for five years--gets a visit from FBI Special Agent Gwen Mulvey. There's been a series of deaths. Without going into much detail, the local police station closest to the crime has received what appears to a message from the killer. Gwen thinks that perhaps the deaths are connected. Although it sounds like something fictional--like something from a serial killer novel or Agatha Christie tale--the murders are connected by the victims' names. Gwen discovered a post Malcolm wrote for the store's blog back in 2004, a list called "Eight Perfect Murders." It describes "perfect" murders in crime fiction, including the great Double Indemnity and Christie's The ABC Murders.
Though Malcolm is not an official suspect, Gwen is investigating the possibility these crimes were all committed by the same perpetrator and that he is purposefully mimicking the crimes from Malcolm's list. All the crimes have happened in New England: "I know it's probably all a coincidence, but I thought it was worth following up." Gwen is certain someone is copycatting The ABC Murders. A body on the train tracks was made to look like Double Indemnity. Though Malcolm wrote the list a long time ago, Gwen hopes he'll look at some cases she's put together, a series of unsolved murders on the New England region over the last few years.
Entrenched in his studio apartment, Malcolm reads Donna Tartt's Secret History, ruminating over the case of Daniel Gonzalez and whether he was indeed killed while on his morning run. The purpose of Gwen's interview has been to "feel him out" and try to get a sense of him. Gwen assumes that whoever is doing this isn't just using his list. She thinks the killer knows him, "maybe not a lot, but a little." Malcom thinks of Brian Haley, his old boss, a drunk and an habitual storyteller, and his dead wife, Claire, who Malcolm met when he was just twenty-seven. He ruminates on the plotline of Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd: "I don't remember anything about the crime itself, except for the name of the victim."
Though the reader might guess that Malcolm perhaps has more to do with these crimes than he's been letting on, Swanson skillfully maneuvers Malcolm's point of view with a conjuror's sleight of hand, from the investigation into "the eight perfect murders" that set the plot in motion to Malcolm and Claire's marriage and the mystery behind Claire's weekend at a friend's farmhouse, where something changed in her that made her jumpy and irritable but also somewhat affectionate. Malcolm rolls through his days, probing for answers first with Brian, then with retired police detective Marty. Malcolm asks Marty to look into an unsolved crime which leads Malcolm into the orbit of English professor Nicholas Pruitt. Marty knows Strangers on a Train, and he tells Malcolm about a death down in Connecticut, someone found near the tracks of a commuter train.
The novel's sense of suspense accelerates as Gwen she works with Malcolm to unravel the case of Elaine Johnson, a heart attack victim. Ever since Gwen Mulvey arrived at Old Devils, asking about his list of perfect murders, Malcolm has been thinking about the "shadow man" and the "shimmery glass wall" that kept him from becoming close to anyone other than his own ghosts. Everything changed for Malcolm when Claire died. Throughout, Gwen, holds secrets of her own.
From wintry, snow-laden Boston to Malcom and Claire's spectral past, Eight Perfect Murders reeks with a subversive ghostly tone. There's tension in simply waiting for the story to build to its inevitable end, where Malcolm's undelivered rage leaves him (and us) reeling. The great irony is that Malcolm was never the murderer; he was the good guy, the detective and the one "who solved the crime."