“Rules For Perfect Murders” by Peter Swanson (2020)

Leave a comment

“The front door opened, and I heard the stamp of the FBI agent’s feet on the doormat.”

Some books fit you better than others, but once in a blue moon a book comes along that makes you think it must have been written for you and you alone. As soon as I saw the premise of Rules for Perfect Murders a few months ago, I knew that this was one of those times. I had to have it. Expectations were high as I made my way into the novel and settled in for the fun.

Malcolm Kershaw, owner of Boston’s famous Old Devils mystery bookstore, has had a call from the FBI, and soon meets Agent Gwen Mulvey who wants to ask him a few questions. In 2004, Malcolm wrote a list for the shop’s website about what he declared fiction’s eight most perfect murders. Now it seems that someone is using the list to perform the murders for real. The evidence is at first slim, and the deaths seem unrelated, but when it turns out that Malcolm knew at least one of the victims, it seems that maybe Mulvey is on to something.

As Malcolm gets more involved in the case, we find out more about his past, why he still sells crime fiction despite having long given up reading it, and which murder the killer will use as inspiration next. It becomes increasingly clear that he is being taunted, but he has no idea who would want to do this. The killer must be stopped before they managed to reenact all eight murders, but how can one predict such a thing?

Firstly, if you intend to read this book, I would suggest you go in blind and don’t read any further. I will try and avoid spoilers, but some are inevitable to discuss it. Secondly. Well. What a phenomenon. Swanson throws us right into the story, with a number of the murders having already happened, and the sense of dread – helped along by the chilling and bitterly cold Boston winter that the story is set in – immediately ratcheted up high. Malcolm is a fascinating narrator, somewhat unreliable at times, but he knows full well what he’s doing. Quite early on you think you know exactly where it’s going, especially if you’ve read a lot of murder mysteries, but the rug is pulled out from under you as soon as you think you’ve got it, leaving you fumbling for clues once more.

The choice of using real life murder mysteries as the basis is inspired, and it’s not a new concept. On a few occasions, murderers have be caught and later discovered to have Agatha Christie novels on their shelves with passages underlined. The eight books selected intrigued me too, and I think had I not read any of them, I would have been less inclined to read the book. Of the eight, I’d read four, and it’s just as well because the book does not go easy on spoilers, and outright ruins the twists of several of the greatest murder mysteries of the last hundred years. The four I had read are The ABC Murders (Agatha Christie), The Red House Mystery (A. A. Milne), The Secret History (Donna Tartt) and Strangers on a Train (Patricia Highsmith). The four I hadn’t were Malice Aforethought (Anthony Berkeley Cox), Double Indemnity (James M. Cain), The Drowner (John D. MacDonald) and Deathtrap (Ira Levin). It’s a good list, but for me, I think you’d have to include the likes of Quick Curtain (Alan Melville), And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie, again) and The Poisoned Chocolates Case (Anthony Berkeley Cox, again). I appreciate the mix, though, and it’s great to see a wide variety, as well as a good selection of murder methods and the disparate motives that seem to be set up. Like all the best murder mysteries, it plays out like a macabre game of Cluedo. This is a perfect example of how to play with the genre, explore it in depth, and do the whole thing knowingly. Swanson is a master.

Absolutely incredible stuff from someone who completely understands the genre.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Mr Bowling Buys A Newspaper” by Donald Henderson (1943)

Leave a comment

“Mr Bowling sat at the piano until it grew darker and darker, not playing, but with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto in D Flat Minor opened before him at the first movement, rubbing his hands nervously, and staring across the shadowy room to the window, to see if it was dark enough yet.”

The murder mystery genre has been popular for a century now, but it is rare that we get a story from the point of view of the killer himself. It’s certainly not something we’ve never seen – a slew of titles from Antidote to Venom to You come to mind – but it’s a nice twist on the genre and allows us to see how (or if) they’ll meet their downfall, rather than who was responsible. Here, we meet a very peculiar serial killer indeed.

Mr Bowling has a compulsion to kill. He didn’t always have it, but it began when he killed his wife for the insurance. Now, driven by this dangerous need, he has started murdering those around him. Unable to stop, he finds that he wants to be caught, and after every murder he buys a newspaper to see if he is suspected. However, this is wartime Britain, at the height of the Blitz, and London is a confused place. All the clues he is leaving are going missing or being destroyed before they can be noted, and he becomes increasingly desperate to be discovered.

That is, until he finally meets the woman he believes he was destined to marry. Now with something to live for, he has to make sure he isn’t apprehended after all, which is made all the more difficult by the fact he’s just committed a murder in his own flat, and the block has a shocking number of nosy neighbours. Mr Bowling now has to make sure the clues disappear on purpose, or he may never get the happiness he seeks.

Henderson is one of those authors who the canon has forgotten. This despite the fact that Mr Bowling Buys a Newspaper was adapted for stage and screen, and Raymond Chandler himself declared it his favourite book, commenting in his famous critical essay “The Simple Art of Murder” that he’d read it half a dozen times and was always buying copies for his friends. Henderson himself died at 41 after a short and tragic life, and not even Chandler’s verdict could keep his work in the public eye. I thought the concept sounded intriguing, and while I’m not Chandler’s biggest fan myself, it seemed sensible to trust a literary giant on what books are worth reading.

Satisfyingly, it is an interesting little novel. With humour blacker than tar and a curiously charming lead character, it gets under your skin and you find yourself liking Mr Bowling, even if he isn’t exactly the most decent chap in London. He is obsessed with class and his breeding, and is evidently “a gentleman”. This is emphasised a few times, when we see how people treat him because they think he is of a higher social standing than he might actually be. The police don’t seem to suspect him, because how could a gentleman be found guilty of murder? He’s also a womaniser, a chancer and one hell of a gambler, taking risks every day, but apparently not worried about the consequences for the most part.

It’s a fun and daft read, surprisingly modern for something published in 1943. I’m not going as far as Chandler to say I’ll read it another half dozen times, but it’s a good story to pass the time with.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

“In The Miso Soup” by Ryu Murakami (1997)

Leave a comment

“My name is Kenji.”

I’m always a little bit sad that I never had to write a dissertation at university. Having done a degree in Creative Writing, my final project was instead to write 15,000 words of a novel. I still wonder to this day what subject I would have written it on. I wasn’t yet a Christie lover, so she’s out, meaning I probably would have written something about the Mr Men’s approach to cultural norms. Because I don’t have my own, I’m always fascinated by what other people wrote their dissertations on, and I learnt earlier this year that one of my colleagues wrote hers on post-war Japanese fiction. After we’d compared notes on Kazuo Ishiguro, Genki Kawamura and Haruki Murakami, she asked if I’d ever read Ryu Murakami. So here I am.

Kenji is a young tour guide, specialising in taking visitors around the various sex clubs that make up parts of Tokyo’s nightlife. Just before New Year, he has been hired by Frank, an overweight American who wants to experience some of the seedier parts of the city. Frank, however, is unlike anyone Kenji has ever met, odd even by American standards, and Kenji begins to doubt the man’s authenticity. As they spend more time together, Kenji finds himself pulled down into a pit of evil where Frank reveals his true intentions, with the only hope of rescue in the form of Kenji’s girlfriend, Jun.

While it all starts off quite interesting, and Frank is immediately portrayed as an unusual man, there’s nothing that sets your heart racing to begin with. We are sucked in because Kenji can’t shake the feeling that there’s something very wrong indeed with Frank, and it’s only when it’s too late that we realise he was right. Comparisons to American Psycho are just, although it’s much shorter, and I found that even as someone who writes a good deal of gore into their stories, it’s somehow harder to read from someone else. The characters introduce us to a world unlike many of us in the West will ever experience or understand, where sex is a commodity sold far more openly than here. Kenji himself notes that while this sort of thing is taken for granted in Japan, and much of it is certainly illegal to some degree, no one in Japan actually questions why it happens, so they can’t really explain it to foreigners.

The writing is succinct and it’s a fascinating translation, with the whole thing feeling claustrophobic and intense. You join the characters in the dark, damp and cold back alleys of Tokyo, a city that always seems to be burning brightly with artificial lights and advertising hoardings, and everything feels like it’s encroaching on you. There’s an unrealness to it that leaves you unsure what’s actually happened, but whether it all really happened or not, you’re never going to be quite the same coming out the other side.

A shocking and staggering read.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

“Fear Nothing” by Lisa Gardner (2014)

Leave a comment

“Rockabye, baby, on the treetop…”

The cosy crime novels of the early twentieth century are where I spend a lot of my time. There are some modern crime novels I love, including the easy and engaging works of Peter James and the supernatural-tinted Rivers of London series, but generally I prefer the bloodless criminal activities of the aristocracy in their large country estates. Although crime and thrillers are huge genres today, it’s a bloated arena, and not all are created equal.

In Fear Nothing, Boston homicide detective D.D. Warren has been injured after attending a crime scene alone in the hopes to find out more. The victim was found in bed, the sheets stained with blood and her skin entirely peeled from their body and left in a mound of thin strips on the floor. D.D. hears a noise as she explores and the next thing she knows, she’s at the bottom of the stairs having fired off her gun, with a severely damaged arm and no memory of how she fell or why she fired her gun.

Elsewhere, Dr Adeline Glen – a pain specialist and the daughter of infamous serial killer Harry Day – is having trouble with her sister, Shana Day, who has inherited their father’s bloodlust and fascinating with killing. Adeline has a rare condition that means she cannot feel pain, which leaves her vulnerable to many things, leading to a life of almost entire isolation. She meets D.D. after the detective is told to visit her to learn how to manage her pain. But then another body is found in the same condition, and the police realise that they’ve seen this kind of thing before, from a man who died forty years ago. It seems that Harry Day is back from the dead and killing again … or maybe someone else has decided to follow in his footsteps…

I confess that around 150 pages in I really started skim-reading. Although the book does open dramatically with the discovery of the first body, it then seems to take ages to get going. This is apparently the seventh book in the series featuring Detective D.D. Warren, but I’m not sure that even having started at the beginning would have served me any better. The characters are flat and usually defined by a single trait – D.D. is a cliched, no-nonsense female cop with pain problems; Adeline is a psychologist who can’t feel pain; Shana is a serial killer; Alex is D.D.’s husband – and never really feel like people you would ever genuinely meet.

Also, I’m definitely not someone who has a problem with gore – both of my books feature a fair amount of it – but here is just feels entirely unnecessary. Excessive detail is used which, in fairness, does make the actions leap off the page, but is this quite so welcome? It did lead to me having several horrible dreams last night that were certainly related to content of the book. It wasn’t just the gore that was overly detailed, however. At one point, D.D. takes two paragraphs to get her sweater off over her painful shoulder. Yes, this helps emphasise the agony she’s in, but it doesn’t half slow down the story. That’s really the problem here – it gets too wrapped up in its own detail to let the story emerge from underneath all the padding.

Fear nothing but long-winded modern thrillers.

Looking for something different to read that bursts genre and shakes up the status quo of storytelling? My second novel, The Third Wheel, is available now at Amazon and Waterstones! If you like tongue-in-cheek stories about aliens and the struggles of being single in a world built for couples, it might just be up your alley. I hope you’ll take a look and enjoy it! Thanks!

“The Z Murders” by J. Jefferson Farjeon (1932)

Leave a comment

“Places, like people, have varying moods, and the moods of London are legion.”

As first lines go, that’s one of the best I’ve ever read. The opening paragraph describing the many moods of Britain’s capital should alone have given J. Jefferson Farjeon a place at the table of the great crime writers of the 20th century. And yet, odds are you’ve never heard of him. I hadn’t. He somehow slipped from the public consciousness despite writing over sixty novels that were, in his lifetime, highly regarded. Fans included the famously tough critic Dorothy L. Sayers, and it seems remarkable that someone so prolific could now be forgotten. Still, thanks once again to the British Library who are continuing to rediscover forgotten gems from the Golden  Age of Detective Fiction, and have brought to us here one of the alphabetically-last novels in the library. Ladies and gentlemen, The Z Murders.

We open in London, with a train pulling into Euston station at five o’clock in the morning. On it is Richard Temperley, come to London to visit his sister, and having had a disagreeable journey sat next to a loud snorer. Arriving in the city far too early to arrive at his sister’s house, he goes to a hotel over the road where he can sleep in the lounge until the dawn fully breaks. Unfortunately, the snorer comes too and is soon seen slumped in a nearby chair. But he’s not snoring anymore – he’s dead.

Shocked, Temperley examines the body and it becomes apparent he’s been shot. Is the incident at all related to the pretty but tense young woman who fled from the lounge mere minutes before the body was discovered? After the police have investigated, Temperley notices the woman’s purse forgotten in one of the chairs. He decides not to inform the police of his findings, and instead seeks the woman out. The police, however, are not stupid, and everyone is soon embarking on a game of cat and mouse that will take them all over the country, by train and taxi, on the hunt for a serial killer with a mysterious motive.

For some reason I keep being surprised when books of this age are funny, like I forgot it was possible that our ancestors had a sense of humour. The book is heavy in silly moments and smart quips, and the heroes are easily likeable. Richard Temperley is a bit gung-ho but is the sort of chivalrous chap who won’t think twice about crossing the country to help a woman in need. The woman in question, Sylvia Wynne, is secretive and you can’t be sure, really, how involved she is in everything. The policeman in charge of the case, Inspector James, is also a great character, and reminded me of Christie’s Inspector Japp, but there’s a suggestion that it’s actually his colleague Dutton who really knows what’s what.

Ted Diggs, the taxi driver who gets lumbered with driving Richard and Sylvia around the country is also great fun, and deeply fleshed out, perhaps slightly more so than even the main characters. Much of the humour comes from the difference in class between characters like Richard and Ted, which is common to novels of the time. In fact, it really is the characters that make this story. The plot is fine, but hangs a bit loose for me, and it’s a tiny bit farcical. Also, several details of it are never quite fully explained, but the resolution is satisfying enough.

The British Library also published Murder in White by Farjeon which was an unexpected success, so I daresay I’ll be returning to him at some point. After all, sixty to get through? Sounds like a challenge to me.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Career Of Evil” by Robert Galbraith (2015)

2 Comments

It was that, or a career in HR.

It was that, or a career in HR.

“He had not managed to scrub off all her blood.”

Although it seems so recently that Robert Galbraith hit the shelves as a respected and renowned crime writer, truth is this is a series that’s been going for two whole years already. Following on from the success – more than a little aided by the discovery of Galbraith’s true identity – of The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm, the third installment of the series takes us once more into the seedy underbelly of London with some of the greatest characters in modern literature.

Review starts now, and there might be one or two spoilers in it, so read on at your own risk.

Picking up a few months after the last book left off, it’s spring 2011 and while the country is preparing of the royal wedding, Cormoran Strike and his assistant Robin Ellacott have become notable in newspapers for their involvement in bringing to justice the murderers of Lula Landry and Owen Quine. Things are ticking over nicely, but everything looks set to go wrong when Robin accepts a package delivered to the office addressed to her. She assumes it’s something for her upcoming wedding to Matthew, her fiance who disapproves of her career choice, and signs for it quite happily. Upon opening the package, she finds it isn’t the disposable cameras that she was expecting.

It’s a woman’s severed leg.

Robin, and Cormoran, are obviously shocked by this development and call in the police. Not long after, the press are crowding around the office and they two of them have to leave it for the time being. It’s clear that whoever sent the leg is mad, dangerous and out to ruin Strike’s career. Eric Wardle, police officer in charge of the case, asks Strike who on earth would want to send him a leg. But Strike has a problem. There isn’t one person he knows who’d do something like that; there are four.

With his client list drying up and his determination to find the culprit growing, Strike begins to dig deep into his past to bring out the characters he’s wronged and who would hold such a grudge against him. Meanwhile, Robin is in danger, and whoever is threatening them is after her, and far cleverer than one would imagine.

Career of Evil is the first book in a while that I’ve had trouble putting down. Oddly compelling, it keeps you going despite constantly disgusting you too. There is violence in spades here, some of it incredibly gory, and the villains in this tale include crack addicts, rapists and paedophiles. The thing that actually disgusted me most of all though was the introduction of the condition called “body integrity identity disorder” (BIID), which was a new one on me. It’s predominately a mental illness of sorts where a person believes that they shouldn’t have a certain limb, or should be disabled. It’s otherwise known as being transabled. Basically, these are people who want to be disabled. Apparently this is a real condition (although not recognised by all medical professionals) and frankly I can think of little more vile than this. Anyone who has this condition needs to take a long, hard look at themselves and seek professional psychiatric help. Given that Strike is missing a leg, this whole issue becomes quite important within the story, and he’s got little time for these people.

This book also gives us more information about the backstory of, mostly, Strike, but also of Robin, finally explaining why she dropped out of university (it won’t come as a surprise to many, I’m sure), and showing more of the rising tensions between her and Matthew. Galbraith also makes far more of the latent sexual tension between Strike and Robin, a subplot I could happily do without. Oh sure, it works within the context of the story, but I like the friendship and working partnership between the two; I don’t think the introduction of the idea that they like each other romantically was strictly necessary or would make too much difference if it was removed. But this is a very small fly in a very large pot of ointment.

It’s slick, clever and the characters (the heroes, anyway – the villains are all appropriately and wickedly macabre and disturbing) are all great. I can’t help but think though that now Strike should have a bit more money, but perhaps after solving a third huge case, things will finally be on the up for him. I haven’t seen or heard any confirmation that the series will continue, but it ends on a mighty big cliffhanger with a lot of questions still to be answered, so I’d imagine this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Strike and Robin.

And long may it be until that end comes.

“Not Dead Enough” by Peter James (2007)

3 Comments

There aren't enough zombie crime novels. This isn't one, either.

There aren’t enough zombie crime novels. This isn’t one, either.

“Darkness took a long time to arrive, but it was worth the wait.”

In a jarring change from a pastoral Britain ruled by toads and badgers, I’ve shifted to last decade’s Brighton to read another of my favourite authors. Despite having only read two of his books before (the two that come before this in this particular series), I am definitely a Peter James fan. The big appeal comes from the fact that all the action takes place in Brighton and the surrounding towns, which means the characters are all in places that I know well.

This is the third book of the Roy Grace series (there’s a review of the second one here), and while you don’t need to have read the first two to enjoy it, there is a story that runs through them all, some of which may go over your head if you start here. In this one, Katie Bishop has been found tied to her bed: naked, wearing a gas mask and, most importantly, dead. Murdered.

Her husband, Brian Bishop, is the primary suspect and he is quickly whisked from his golf tournament to be informed of his wife’s death. He claims that he was in London when the murder happened, but Grace, the DSI in charge of the case, thinks he might be lying. Without enough evidence to charge him, Grace and his team begin to compile a case against him, and when a second body turns up, this time with DNA evidence left at the scene, the noose tightens and Grace begins to think he’s got his man.

On top of all this, Grace’s fledgling relationship with mortician Cleo Morey hits its first stumbling blocks when his best mate Glenn moves in after being kicked out of the family home, and another friend has just called to tell Grace that he thinks he saw his wife in Munich – news that comes as a particular surprise as Grace’s wife Sandy has been missing for nine years. Should Grace go looking for her, or has he finally begun to get over her mysterious absence?

James breaks one of the cardinal rules of crime fiction in this novel, but the story is so compelling that frankly I almost forgot to care. After all, Agatha Christie broke basically every single rule there was, and that’s what makes her the Queen of Crime. If not the King, James is certainly a regal prince of some kind. I’m wary to say much more about the plot because I don’t want to give anything away, but despite the fact the book is just over six hundred pages long, it never feels like that. It’s the first book in a long time that I’ve set aside extra time devoted specifically to reading. James’ style is easy, chatty and informal, despite the large amounts of official police terminology used. He’s a man who has clearly done his research. This isn’t a world where the policemen can only solve the crime after being taken off the force, but one where everything has to happen by the book and the policemen are shown as heroes, which is something we need to see sometimes these days, given the stories of police brutality you hear in the media.

James seems to have a fascination with the minutia, which is far from a complaint. Every character is introduced with a physical description and often a little bit of backstory, and it really helps build up a picture of the world we’re inhabiting, and never feels like it’s in the way. The books are most certainly set in the real world, using actual locations and a liberal sprinkling of brand names and references to modern novels and TV shows. The stories feel real, with little extra conversations and events that don’t seem to do anything to the plot, but just help make the thing feel more like it’s really happening, because in the real world people aren’t always sitting there waiting to help you, and don’t always have the right information to hand. Sure, there are a couple of coincidences within the novel, but you can overlook them because they are built up in such a way that they don’t feel contrived. Roy Grace is one of my favourite characters in fiction, and that’s no exaggeration, and you find yourself continually rooting for him, in both his personal and professional lives.

It’s taken me four years to read the first three books in this series. Why? These books are genius.