Rules for Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson

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Reviewed by Ian Lipke

A very clever idea guides the momentum of Peter Swanson’s Rules for Perfect Murders. Create a series of unsolved murders that share an eerie resemblance to crimes that have appeared in well-regarded mystery novels. Toss in FBI agent Gwen Mulvey who shares a resemblance to Clarice M. Starling, a fictional character who appears in the novels The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal by Thomas Harris. Mix in a bookseller who once compiled a list online of his eight favourite murders but has issues of his own – and you have the ingredients of a first class thriller.

One gains the strong impression that the novel could not have been written elsewhere than in the United Kingdom. This would be completely wrong. Swanson is an eastern seaboard North American writer. The FBI is an American organisation; the cities referred to in the book are American. So where does the impression that this is a British-set novel come from? It is the understated prose that one finds in classic English novels.

The storyline unfolds. It does not dazzle with brilliant leaps of logic. It does not fire each succeeding episode with some glittering coincidence. It simply rolls inexorably on until the climax is reached. The setting is muted, the characters grey, the excitement dulled. Yet there is the maintenance of intellectual interest. One follows the story but is forever evaluating how it is that the author reveals his story. The whole enterprise could be described with a certain degree of strength as ‘ordinary storyline, immaculately delivered’.

A twist involving Agent Mulvey caught me off-guard and caused a mild flutter in my thinking. It concerned me enough to wonder why it was necessary to introduce a complication not called for by the story line. This was the point when the story lost its momentum as the writer, no longer interested in telling a story in an engaging way, lapsed into absurdity. The pace slowed, the hero’s actions became illogical and silly. One was forever asking, “Why do that?” The denouement and conclusion held no interest for me.

In the author’s favour is a real talent for writing scenes of atmosphere and truth. The snow is a living thing in this book, the shapes it takes, and bleakness of the city-scape under snow, provide a world distinctively real. The portrayal of Nero the cat and Humphrey the dog are first class, while the picture of Tess as the marauding wife, and the hero’s misreading of her purpose, were flickers of humour in a drab landscape. The cleverest notion in the book was the depiction on a few, carefully spaced occasions, of a main character demonstrating sociopathic tendencies by initiating acquaintances, getting friendly and then freezing any thought of becoming close to another human being. Even so, Swanson fails to demonstrate the acuity and psychological insight that familiarity with the world of the sociopath requires. The result is a failure to make the scenes more memorable than they are.

We don’t learn much about the author from the book or from the publisher’s blurb. He has a string of books that are judged to be good quality reading. This book doesn’t quite reach that mark.

Rules for Perfect Murders

(2020)

By Peter Swanson

Faber/ A & U

ISBN: 978-0-571-34236-5

$39.99; 288pp

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