48 pages 1 hour read

Peter Swanson

Eight Perfect Murders

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2020

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Summary and Study Guide


Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson was originally published in 2020. Swanson is an award-winning author of prose and poetry, and Eight Perfect Murders is a New York Times bestseller. This mystery novel, while fiction, claims to be a memoir. Swanson’s novel explores The Nature of Bookselling through its first-person narrator, Malcolm, who owns a bookstore in Boston. The story follows murders that are seemingly inspired by a post Malcolm wrote on the bookstore’s blog, detailing his opinion of the best murders in mystery novels. In this way, Swanson’s novel is a homage to the very genre it belongs to. Eight Perfect Murders additionally explores the themes of Memory and Omission and Reality and Fiction, ultimately showing how these themes might affect a narrative’s ambiguity and how they build a mystery for attentive readers.  

This guide cites the HarperCollins 2021 paperback edition.

Content Warning: The source material and this guide contain discussions of sexual assault, drug addiction, and death by suicide, in addition to descriptions of murders.

Plot Summary

Eight Perfect Murders is the fictional memoir of a bookseller named Malcolm Kershaw. The novel begins with Malcolm working in Old Devils, a mystery bookstore in Boston. FBI Special Agent Gwen Mulvey enters and tells him she believes a murderer is using a Malcolm’s blog post titled “Eight Perfect Murders” as a template for their crimes. The victims include three people with bird names, as well as a body found on train tracks, which resemble The A.B.C. Murders and Double Indemnity, respectively. Malcolm includes these books, as well as Strangers on a Train, Malice Aforethought, The Red House Mystery, The Secret History, Deathtrap, and The Drowner, in his list.

Gwen takes Malcolm to the house of Elaine Johnson, who was a regular at the store. As in Deathtrap, Elaine died from a heart attack, essentially scared to death. They discover the killer has left all of the books on Malcolm’s list on Elaine’s bookshelf. As their investigation is going on, Malcolm reflects on the past. He recalls his dead wife Claire, who used drugs and cheated on him, as well as her drug dealer, Eric. Malcolm confides to the reader that he used a website called Duckburg to arrange a murder swap. Another person killed Eric for Malcolm, and Malcolm killed a man named Norman. After the murder, Malcolm takes Norman’s cat, Nero, and rehomes him in the bookstore.

Malcolm asks for help with the case from his friend Marty, a retired police officer. Marty connects a man named Nicholas Pruitt to Norman, the man Malcolm killed in the murder swap. Malcolm believes Nicholas is the one who killed Eric and begins investigating Nicholas, including talking to an ex-girlfriend of his who took out a restraining order against him. Meanwhile, the co-owner of Old Devils, Brian Murray, breaks his arm and his wife, Tess, who usually lives in Florida, comes to Boston to help out around the house. Malcolm doesn’t hear from Gwen for a few days, and two different FBI agents, Berry and Perez, question Malcolm and tell him that Gwen has been suspended.

Malcolm meets Gwen for drinks and she confesses that she found Malcolm after the death of her father, Steven Clifton. Steven molested Malcolm’s wife when she was in middle school and told Gwen about it. When the agency learned about the conflict of interest, Gwen was suspended. Malcolm decides to stake out Nicholas’s house and discovers that he has been murdered. He appears to have drunk himself to death, but he was forced to drink alcoholic beverages laced with drugs, as in Malice Aforethought.

Malcolm apologizes to his employees Emily and Brandon for being away from the store during his investigations and rereading the books on his list (as well as other books). Then, Malcolm goes over to Brian’s house for drinks, and Tess hits on him, with Brian’s blessing. Malcolm mistakes her attraction for murderous intent because the alcohol at Brian’s house matches the alcohol that Nicholas drank, and he pushes her away.

When he gets home, he has messages on the Duckburg site in response to his request for another murder swap, which he posted to try to discover who the killer is. The murderer asks Malcolm to take part in the murder of Brian and Tess based on the Red House Mystery. Malcolm refuses and goes back to Brian’s house. There, he discovers Marty is the murderer and has drugged Tess. Marty’s wife also cheated on him, and he blames a famous author of a book that is anti-monogamy. This author has a bird-related name, and Marty covered up her murder with the murder of two other people with bird names. Marty admits to the other murders as well, finding his victims through police reports.

Malcolm kills Marty, hides in Elaine’s house, and calls emergency services, directing them to care for the unconscious Tess and Brian. Malcolm also calls Gwen and confesses that he killed Steven Clifton in a way that resembled The Secret History. Near the end of the book, Malcolm confesses to the reader that he killed his wife by running her off the road while she drove under the influence. He acknowledges the similarity in the names and situations of himself and Marty, but denies that they are the same person. After a few days of hiding out and writing his memoir, Malcolm decides to drown himself, imitating the final book on the list, The Drowner.