Eight perfect murders… and not so perfect murderers

A month ago, more or less, I finished reading Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson. While the book was not a new favourite – kind of forgettable, to be honest – most of the reviews I read agree that the eight books mentioned in the infamous list are all better than the novel itself. Mystery is not my go-to genre, but I do enjoy it most of the time when I pick it up and I liked the idea of reading some older books in the genre. I hadn’t read any of these books in the past, I was curious, and it sounded like a good idea for a blog post.

The only problem with it was that the book spoils some of the mysteries quite a lot, but due to the fact that I listened to the audiobook, I didn’t think I retained too much information about them. Or, at least, I was not able to trace each murder to its proper book, so I guess that was something. As I was going to find out while reading, most of the books on the list are not even exactly mysteries, as the murderer is often introduced in the first pages.

All in all, it was an interesting reading experience. Not only the genre is not one I’m well versed in, but these titles have all been published, with the exception of one, forty years or more ago. Just so you know, there might be mild spoilers, but I’ll try to be as vague as possible.

The Red House Mystery (1922) by A. A. Milne

The main characters are presented in the beginning of the novel through the voices of two housemaid chatting the afternoon away. The Red House guests are out playing golf, and their host is waiting for the arrival of his wastrel brother from Australia. Little does he know, another stranger is coming to the house more or less at the same time, to visit one of the guests: it’s Antony Gillingham, and he finds himself inside the house not a moment after a shot is heard from the office room. When he and the host’s cousin (and accountant) finally manage to break in the room, they find the brother dead, and the host is nowhere to be found. Thus starts the detective career of Antony, who notices a few strange details in the scene from the beginning. He recruits his friend Bill to act as his Watson and help him in the investigation, and they start searching the house and trying to figure out what happened and where is the culprit.

The book doesn’t waste any time playing around or following irrelevant plot points, even if there are a couple of well placed red herrings. The characters are not extremely fleshed out, but the cast is small enough so that is impossible to mix them up; they also have some witty exchanges and manage to be quite likeable. It was fun to follow Antony’s reasoning; every chapter added new elements to the mystery, and I thought the resolution was pretty clever.

Malice Aforethought (1931) by Francis Iles

Without going too much into details, this is more of a psychological thriller than a classic mystery. The protagonist is known to jump from an affair to the next, while his cold wife Julia waits patiently at home. They were never in love, but they live in a comfortable routine. That is, until Dr. Bickleigh comes to the conclusion that he needs to get rid of her. Thus begins a long period in the head of a man who has been repeatedly humiliated and had had his self-esteem almost completely crushed, until he succeeds in making her wife’s death look like an unfortunate accident. This encourages him to think himself safe and cleverer than everyone else; and as gossip spreads that Julia has not died naturally after all, his arrogance will lead him to make mistakes without even realising and to try to replicate the success of his first murder.

It was interesting to follow the thought process of a character like the doctor, and see all the little ways in which he justifies his actions; it brings the reader to question the assumption that a mundane life, far from childhood trauma and the like, couldn’t justify such dreadful actions. I didn’t like the protagonist: he is a mean little man, and the few moments of sympathy that he manages to elicit are promptly swept away by his malignant attitude, but he was still disturbingly realistic in his reasonings. The female character were annoying as well. Julia, the wife, is probably the only one with a little brain or personality; the other ones are stupid and petty, and the classic feeble women of the early ’30s, always crying, fainting, or downright hysterical. Still, I was glued to the pages while reading, so I guess it was not all bad?

The ABC Murders (1936) by Agatha Christie

This is a classic Poirot mystery. Sure, I haven’t read many of them before – one, if I recall correctly – but I used to watch the tv show many years ago, so I feel like I’m familiar with the structure. The story goes like this: captain Hastings is in London and pays a visit to his friend Hercule Poirot, which is now retired and only seldom participates in police investigations. He has recently gotten a mysterious letter that announces the day and place of a future murder and invites him to stop it before it takes place. This happens again and again, the murders start to pile up, and one thing is clear: the killer is proceeding in alphabetical order, and he’s not going to stop.

It was a fun read, and even knowing somewhat how it was going to end, I was still trying to piece the mystery together with Hastings. I enjoy the character of Poirot even if, from time to time, he comes off as a little bit too full of himself.

Double Indemnity (1936) by James M. Cain

This was interesting. Similar to Malice Aforethought, we know from the beginning that the protagonist is the murderer, and what’s left to do is just watch as he plans every detail and executes the perfect murder, but for one little thing: his accomplice is not happy about him knowing everything. Walter works for an insurance group and, after falling in love with the wife of a client, they start planning the murder of his husband. Things go downhill after the deed is done, and the relationship between them starts to fall apart.

To be fair to this book, there’s a backstory that would make any serial killer pale in shame. How come nobody catched this awful woman after all she did? The protagonist, on the other hand, was calculating and so so careful while plotting the deed to be almost unnerving. It all fell away, though, when he managed to “fall in love” for the second time, in the course of a novel that’s not even that long, and because of this he throws away all his foolproof planning.

Strangers on a Train (1950) by Patricia Highsmith

This was again really heavy on the psychological aspect, and I think it was really well done. I mean, the murders themselves probably take up less than thirty pages when put together, and the rest of the novel explores the complicated and kind of toxic relationship between Guy Haines and Charles Bruno.

Guy is waiting for his wife to sign the divorce papers so he can settle down with his new partner, but she keeps stalling. Bruno, on the other hand, lives on his father’s money, but he doesn’t like him at all, can’t stand the way he disrespects his mother and just wants him out of the way. He’s the one who proposes Guy to “exchange” murders: they’ll both be free, and it will be impossible to track the crimes back to them, because they can prepare perfect alibis. Guy refuses, but excited by the idea, Bruno proceeds to do his part without consulting him and presents him with a deed already done. That’s when the nightmare starts for Guy: he is abhorred by Charles’ idea, until fear, guilt, and a good deal of blackmailing gets to him and he gives in. Later he’s eaten by guilt, and both hates and loves Bruno: he represents his darkest moment and worst action, but he’s also the only person who shares his guilt and understands him. The guilt he’s feeling prevents him from fully enjoying his success at work and his relationship with his new wife.

Bruno, on his part, is an alcoholic; his relationship with drink deteriorates throughout the novel and his lucidity together with it. He is obsessed by Guy – it’s hinted more than once that he doesn’t like women, so there might be something more there – and he starts suffering from what looks like anxiety or maybe even panic attacks.

The book was interesting but feels a bit too long, and the ending was a big wtf for me. I did enjoy it though, even if I couldn’t bring myself to really like either of the characters.

The Drowner (1963) by John D. MacDonald

Ugh, where do I even start with this one? This was more of a mystery than some of the other books, as the investigation went on almost until the end – even if the murderer was revealed quite a bit earlier than that. Now, for the problems. The beginning is quite boring; there are a lot of different characters introduced in the first few chapters and very little to keep the attention up. The characters were pretty bland, the women are always described in a very sexualized manner, and there was one scene in particular, when the author described the means of one of the murders, that made me feel physically uncomfortable. Well, the last one could actually be a positive thing, as I’m not generally too squeamish and it’s really rare for me to be affected by a detailed description. As for the murders themselves, I’ll admit the culprit would have never been found if she didn’t go a bit overboard and tried to kill a lot of other people; but aside from that, I think this book doesn’t hold up nearly as well as the other ones on this list did.

Deathtrap (1978) by Ira Levin

This was such a surprise! It’s the only one on the list that it’s not a novel but a play, and it’s a breath of fresh air after some of the heavier books mentioned above. The protagonist is a playwright of thrillers who has lost his inspiration. He gets a script from one of his students, finds it brilliant, and decides to invite him over with the excuse of offering him a collaboration, but actually plans to kill him and take merit for the play. But not all is as it seems…

Simple setting, only a few characters, witty dialogue and a plot full of twists, everything delivered almost exclusively in dialogue form. I thought it was so funny, I’d love to see it live in a theatre.

The Secret History (1992) by Donna Tartt

Bunny is dead, but his friends’ relief at having him gone is destined to be short-lived. We know this from the beginning of the book, but Richard Papen takes us a couple of months before it happened to tell us what led them to that point.

When Richard first sets foot at Hampden College, he is lost, aimless, and alone. It all changes when he meets a small group of elite students, with their heads full of myths and ancient stories, and their eccentric professor Julian Morrow. He somehow works his way into this glittering world of classics and friendship, money and drinks, and just when he feels like he’s starting to fit in, the picture begins to crumble. A secret comes to light, and even though at first it looks like it’s not such a big deal, it’s the beginning of the end. His friends slowly start to fall apart and reveal their truer selves, and it’s not the pretty picture Richard had painted in his mind.

I am conflicted about this book. For the first half I felt like it could be a new favourite, which doesn’t happen very often; the writing is beautiful, the characters interesting, the story compelling. But after a while, I started feeling like it could have used a little trimming here and there. The beautiful writing remained, but some parts went for a bit too long and some aspects of the novel didn’t deliver completely. For example, I think that the character of Julian could have been developed so much more, to show how much he really is an inspiration for the group and a model for their way of thinking, but he kind of fades in the background for most of the novel. I still loved it, and I’ll be reading more by Donna Tartt. It also reminded me of If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio, which is one of my favourite books of all time.

All in all, it was a curious experience to be away from my genre of choice – fantasy, if it wasn’t clear enough by my usual reading habits – for so long. If you’re curious about which ones I liked the most, here is a list from my favourite to my least favourite:

  • The Secret History by Donna Tartt
  • Deathtrap by Ira Levin
  • The Red House Mystery by A. A. Milne
  • The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie
  • Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith
  • Malice Aforethough by Francis Iles
  • Double Indemnity by James M. Cain
  • The Drowner by John D. MacDonald

The Secret History and Deathtrap could probably stand on the same level, if not for the fact that they are complete different things. I mean, one is a 500+ pages novel, the other is a play in two acts. As for the other ones… some of them I’d recommend to a fan of the genre without hesitation: The Red House Mystery, The ABC Murders, Strangers on a Train. The rest suffer pretty badly from the passage of time, especially in their depiction of female characters, and it might be a little off-putting for some readers.

So, are these murders really the perfect crimes? Well, they are perfect on paper, but in the end most of the murderers got caught anyway. If there’s something I learned from this experiment, is this: plan thoroughly, work alone, don’t get greedy or arrogant and, most importantly, don’t confess to save someone who doesn’t love you back or just to clean your conscience. It’s never worth it.

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