Eight Perfect Murders – Peter Swanson

The front door opened, and I heard the stamp of the FBI agent’s feet on the doormat. It had just begun to snow, and the air that rushed into the store was heavy and brimming with energy. The door shut behind the agent. She must have been just outside when she’d called because it had only been about five minutes since I’d agreed to meet with her. Except for me, the store was empty. I don’t know exactly why I’d opened it that day. A storm was forecast to drop over two feet of snow, beginning in the morning and continuing through until the following afternoon. Boston Public Schools had already announced they were closing early, and they’d canceled all classes for the following day. I’d called the two employees who were scheduled to come in—Emily for the morning shift and early afternoon, and Brandon for the afternoon and evening—and told them both to stay home. I logged on to the Old Devils Bookstore Twitter account and was about to send out a tweet saying that we were closed for the duration of the storm, but something stopped me. Maybe it was the thought of spending all day in my apartment alone. And besides, I lived less than half a mile from the store. I decided to go in; at the very least I’d be able to spend some time with Nero, straighten up some shelves, maybe even pack up some online orders. A sky the color of granite was threatening snow as I unlocked the front doors on Bury Street in Beacon Hill. Old Devils Bookstore is not in a high-traffic area, but we’re a specialty bookstore— mystery books, used and new—and most of our customers seek us out or simply order directly from our website.

On a typical Thursday in February I wouldn’t be surprised if the total number of customers barely reached double digits, unless of course we had an event planned. Still, there was always work to do. And there was Nero, the store cat, who hated spending the day alone. Also, I couldn’t remember if I’d fed him extra food the night before. It turned out I probably hadn’t because when I stepped through the front door, he came racing along the hardwood floor to greet me. He was a ginger cat of indeterminate age, perfect for the store because of his willingness (his eagerness, really) to put up with the affections of strangers. I turned on the store lights, fed Nero, then brewed myself a pot of coffee. At eleven, Margaret Lumm, a regular, entered. “What are you doing open?” she asked. “What are you doing out?” She held up two grocery bags from an upscale grocery store on Charles Street.

“Provisions,” she said, in her patrician voice. We talked about the latest Louise Penny novel. She talked, mostly. I pretended I’d read it. These days I pretend I’ve read many books. I do read the reviews from the major trade publications, of course, and I go to a few blogs. One of them is called The Armchair Spoiler and it includes reviews of recent titles that discuss endings. I no longer have the stomach for contemporary mystery novels— sometimes I reread a particular favorite from my childhood—and I find the book blogs indispensable. I suppose I could be honest, tell people that I’ve lost interest in mystery novels, that I primarily read history these days, poetry before I go to bed, but I prefer to lie. The few people I’ve told the truth to always want to know why I’ve given up reading crime, and it’s not something I can talk about.

I sent Margaret Lumm away with a used copy of Ruth Rendell’s Shake Hands Forever that she was 90 percent sure she’d never read. Then I ate the lunch I’d packed—a chicken salad sandwich—and was just about thinking of calling it a day when the phone rang. “Old Devils Bookstore,” I answered. “Is Malcolm Kershaw available?” A woman’s voice. “Speaking,” I said. “Oh, good. This is Special Agent Gwen Mulvey of the FBI. I’d love a little bit of your time to ask you a few questions.” “Okay,” I said. “Is now good?” “Sure,” I said, thinking she wanted to talk on the phone, but instead she told me she’d be right over and disconnected the line.

I stood for a moment, phone in hand, imagining what an FBI agent named Gwen would look like. Her voice on the phone had been raspy, so I imagined her to be nearing retirement, an imposing, humorless woman in a tan raincoat. A few minutes later Agent Mulvey pushed through the door, looking very different from how I’d imagined her. She was in her thirties, if that, and wearing jeans that were tucked into forest green boots, plus a puffy winter jacket and a white knit hat with a pom-pom on it. She stomped her boots on the welcome mat, removed her hat, and came across to the checkout counter. I came around to meet her, and she reached out a hand. She had a firm handshake, but her hand was clammy. “Agent Mulvey?” I asked. “Yes, hi.” Snowflakes were melting on her green coat, leaving behind dark spots.

She briefly shook her head—the ends of her thin, blond hair were wet. “I’m surprised you’re still open,” she said. “I’m just about to close up, actually.” “Oh,” she said. She had a leather bag slung over one shoulder and she lifted the strap over her head, then unzipped her jacket. “You have some time, though?” “I do. And I’m curious. Should we talk back in my office?” She turned back and glanced at the front door. The tendons in her neck popped out against her white skin. “Will you be able to hear if a customer comes in?” she said.

“I don’t think that’ll happen, but, yes, I’ll be able to hear. It’s this way.” My office was more of a nook at the back of the store. I got Agent Mulvey a chair and went around the desk and sat in my leather recliner, its stuffing bulging out from the seams. I positioned myself so that I could see her between two stacks of books. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I forgot to ask you if you wanted anything? There’s still some coffee in the pot.” “No, I’m fine,” she said, removing her jacket and putting her leather bag, more of a briefcase, really, on the floor by her side. She wore a black crewneck sweater under the coat. Now that I could really see her, I realized it wasn’t just her skin that was pale.

It was all of her: the color of her hair; her lips; her eyelids, almost translucent; even her glasses with their thin wire rims almost disappeared into her face. It was hard to know exactly what she looked like, almost like some artist had rubbed a thumb across her features to blur them. “Before we start, I’d like to ask you to please not discuss anything we are about to talk about with anyone. Some of it is public record but some of it is not.” “Now I’m really curious,” I said, aware that my heart rate had accelerated. “And, yes, absolutely, I won’t tell anyone.” “Great, thank you,” she said, and she seemed to settle in her chair, her shoulders dropping, her head squaring with mine. “Have you heard about Robin Callahan?” she asked. Robin Callahan was a local news anchor who, a year and a half ago, had been found shot in her home in Concord, about twenty-five miles northwest of Boston. It had been the leading local news story since it had happened, and despite a suspicious ex-husband, no arrests had been made.

“About the murder?” I said. “Of course.” “And what about Jay Bradshaw?” I thought for a moment, then shook my head. “I don’t think so.” “He lived in Dennis on the Cape. In August he was found beaten to death in his garage.” “No,” I said. “You sure?” “I’m sure.” “Then what about Ethan Byrd?” “That name rings a bell.” “He was a college student from UMass Lowell who went missing over a year ago.

” “Okay, right.” I did remember this case, although I couldn’t remember any of the details. “He was found buried in a state park in Ashland, where he was from, about three weeks after he’d gone missing.” “Yeah, of course. It was big news. Are those three murders connected?” She leaned forward on her wooden chair, reached a hand down to her bag, then brought it back suddenly, as though she’d changed her mind about something. “We didn’t think so, at first, except that they’re all unsolved. But someone noticed their names.” She paused, as though giving me a chance to interrupt her. Then she said, “Robin Callahan.

Jay Bradshaw. Ethan Byrd.” I thought for a moment. “I feel like I’m failing a test,” I said. “You can take your time,” she said. “Or I can just tell you.” “Are their names related to birds?” I said. She nodded. “Right. A Robin, a Jay, and then the last name of Byrd.

It’s kind of a stretch, I realize, but . without going into too much detail, after each murder the local police station closest to the crime received . what appeared to be a message from the killer.” “So they are connected?” “It seems that way, yes. But they might be connected in another way, as well. Do the murders remind you of anything? I’m asking you because you are someone who is an expert on detective fiction.” I looked at the ceiling of my office for a moment, then said, “I mean, it sounds like something fictional, like something from a serial killer novel, or something from an Agatha Christie.” She sat up a little straighter. “Any particular Agatha Christie novel?” “The one that’s jumping to my mind is A Pocket Full of Rye for some reason. Did that have birds?” “I don’t know.

But that’s not the one I was thinking of.” “I guess it’s similar to The A.B.C. Murders as well,” I said. Agent Mulvey smiled, like she’d just won a prize. “Right. That’s the one I’m thinking of.” “Because nothing connects the victims except for their names.” “Exactly.

And not just that, but the deliveries to the police station. In the book Poirot gets letters from the killer signed A. B. C.” “You’ve read it, then?” “When I was fourteen, definitely. I read almost all of Agatha Christie’s books, so I probably read that one, too.” “It’s one of her best,” I said, after a brief pause. I’d never forgotten that particular Christie plot line. There are a series of murders and what connects them are the victims’ names. First, someone with the initials A.

A. is killed in a town that begins with the letter A, then someone with the initials B. B. is killed in a B town. You get the idea. It turns out that the perpetrator really only wanted to kill one of the victims, but he made it look like a series of crimes done by a deranged serial killer. “You think so?” the agent said. “I do. One of her best plots, for sure.” “I’m planning on reading it again, but I did just Wikipedia it to remind myself of the story.

There was a fourth murder in the book, as well.” “I think so, yes,” I said. “Someone with a D name was the last person killed. And it turned out that the killer was making it look like a madman was doing it when all along he just wanted to kill one person. So the other murders are basically cover.” “That’s what the plot summary on Wikipedia said. In the book it was the person with the double C name who was the intended victim all along.” “Okay,” I said. I was starting to wonder why she had come to me. Was it just because I owned a mystery bookstore? Did she need a copy of the book? But if that were the case, then why did she ask for me, specifically, on the phone? If she just wanted someone who worked in a mystery bookstore, then she could have come inside and talked with anyone.

“Can you tell me anything else about the book?” she asked, then added, after a moment, “You’re the expert.” “Am I?” I said. “Not really, but what is it you want to know?” “I don’t know. Anything. I was hoping you’d tell me.” “Well, besides the fact that a strange man comes into the store every day and buys a new copy of The A.B.C. Murders, I don’t know what else to tell you.” Her eyes raised for a moment before she realized I’d made a joke, or an attempt at one, then she smiled a little in acknowledgment.

I asked her, “You think these murders are related to the book?” “I do,” she said. “It’s too fantastical for it not to be.” “Is it that you think someone’s copying the books in order to get away with a murder? That someone wanted to murder Robin Callahan, for example, but then murdered the other people to make it look like a serial killer obsessed with birds?” “Maybe,” Agent Mulvey said, and she rubbed a finger along the edge of her nose, up near her left eye. Even her small hands were pale, the fingernails unpainted. She was quiet again. It was a strange interview, full of pauses. She was hoping I’d fill in the silence, I guess. I decided to not say anything. Eventually, she said, “You must be wondering why I came to talk with you.” “I am,” I said.

“Before I tell you I’d like to ask you about one other recent case.” “Okay.” “You probably haven’t heard of it. A man named Bill Manso. He was found near the train tracks in Norwalk, Connecticut, back in the spring. He was a regular commuter on a particular train, and initially it looked as though he’d jumped, but now it looks as though he was killed elsewhere and brought to the tracks.” “No,” I said, shaking my head. “I didn’t hear about it.” “Does it remind you of anything?” “Does what remind me of anything?” “The nature of his death.” “No,” I said, but that wasn’t entirely true.

It did remind me of something, but I couldn’t remember exactly what it was. “I don’t think so,” I added. She waited again, and I said, “Do you want to tell me why you’re questioning me?” She unzipped her leather bag and removed a single sheet of paper. “Do you remember a list you wrote for this store’s blog, back in 2004? A list called ‘Eight Perfect Murders’?” Chapter 2 I’d worked in bookstores ever since graduating from college in 1999. First briefly at a Borders in downtown Boston, then as both an assistant manager and a senior manager at one of the few remaining independents in Harvard Square. Amazon had just won its war for total domination and most of the indies were folding up like flimsy tents in a hurricane. But the Redline Bookstore was sticking it out, partly due to an older clientele not yet savvy enough to figure out online shopping, but mostly because its owner, Mort Abrams, outright owned the two-story brick building the store was housed in and didn’t have to pay rent. I was at Redline five years, two as an assistant manager, then three as senior manager and part-time book buyer. My specialty was fiction, and in particular, crime fiction. During my time at the store I also met my future wife, Claire Mallory, who was hired as a bookseller shortly after she’d dropped out of Boston University.

We got married the same year that Mort Abrams lost his wife of thirty-five years to breast cancer. Mort and Sharon, who lived two streets over from the bookstore, had become close friends, substitute parents really, and Sharon’s death was hard, especially since it robbed Mort of any remaining zest for life. A year after her death he told me that he was shutting down the store, unless, of course, I wanted to buy him out, take it over myself. I considered it, but at that point Claire had already left Redline, going to work at the local cable access station, and I didn’t necessarily want to take on the hours, or the financial risk, of running my own store. I contacted Old Devils, a mystery bookstore in Boston, and John Haley, the owner at the time, created a job for me. I would be the events manager, but also create content for the store’s burgeoning blog, a site for mystery lovers. My last day at Redline was the store’s last day in business, as well. Mort and I locked the front doors together, then I followed him back to his office, where we drank from a dusty bottle of single malt that had been given to him by Robert Parker. I remember thinking that Mort, without his wife, and now without the store, wouldn’t make it through the winter. I was wrong.

He lived through the winter and spring, but he did manage to die the following summer at his lake house at Winnipesaukee, a week before Claire and I were planning to visit. “Eight Perfect Murders” was the first piece I wrote for the Old Devils blog. John Haley, my new boss, had asked me to write a list of my favorite mystery novels, but instead I pitched the idea of writing a list of perfect murders in crime fiction. I don’t exactly know why I was reluctant to share my favorite books yet, but I remember thinking that writing about perfect murders might generate more traffic. This was right around the time that several blogs were taking off, making their authors rich and famous. I remember someone doing a blog about making one of Julia Child’s recipes every day that was turned into a book, and maybe even a movie. I think I must have had some delusions of grandeur that my blog platform might turn me into a public and trusted aficionado of crime fiction. Claire added fuel to the fire by telling me repeatedly that she thought this blog could really blow up, that I’d find my calling—a literary critic of crime fiction. The truth was that I’d already found my calling, at least I thought I had, and I was a bookseller, content with the hundreds of minute interactions that make up a bookseller’s daily life. And what I loved most of all was to read—that was my true calling.

Despite this, I somehow began to see my “Perfect Murders” piece—not yet written—as more important than it really was. I’d be setting the tone for the blog, announcing myself to the world. I wanted it to be flawless, not just the writing, but the list itself. The books should be a mix of the well known and the obscure. The golden age should be represented, but there should also be a contemporary novel. For days on end, I sweated it out, tinkering with the list, adding titles, subtracting titles, researching books I hadn’t yet read. I think the only reason I ever actually finished was because John started to grumble that I hadn’t published anything on the blog yet. “It’s a blog,” he’d said. “Just write a list of goddamn books and post it. You’re not getting graded.

” The post went up, appropriately enough, on Halloween. Reading it now makes me cringe a little. It’s overwritten, even pretentious at times. I can practically taste the need for approval. This is what was eventually posted: Eight Perfect Murders by Malcolm Kershaw In the immortal words of Teddy Lewis in Body Heat, Lawrence Kasdan’s underrated neo-noir from 1981: “Any time you try a decent crime, you got fifty ways you’re gonna fuck up. If you think of twentyfive of them, then you’re a genius . and you ain’t no genius.” True words, yet the history of crime fiction is littered with criminals, mostly dead or incarcerated, who all attempted the near impossible: the perfect crime. And many of them attempted the ultimate perfect crime, that being murder. The following are my choices for the cleverest, the most ingenious, the most foolproof (if there is such a thing) murders in crime fiction history.

These are not my favorite books in the genre, nor do I claim these are the best. They are simply the ones in which the murderer comes closest to realizing that platonic ideal of a perfect murder. So here it is, a personal list of “perfect murders.” I’ll warn you in advance that while I try to avoid major spoilers, I wasn’t one hundred percent successful. If you haven’t read one of these books, and want to go in cold, I suggest reading the book first, and my list second. The Red House Mystery (1922) by A. A. Milne Long before Alan Alexander Milne created his lasting legacy—Winnie-the-Pooh, in case you hadn’t heard—he wrote one perfect crime novel. It’s a country house mystery; a long-lost brother suddenly appears to ask Mark Ablett for money. Agun goes off in a locked room, and the brother is killed.

Mark Ablett disappears. There is some preposterous trickery in this book—including characters in disguise, and a secret passage—but the basic fundamentals behind the murderer’s plan are extremely shrewd. Malice Aforethought (1931) by Anthony Berkeley Cox Famous for being the first “inverted” crime novel (we know who the murderer and victim are on the very first page), this is essentially a case study in how to poison your wife and get away with it. It helps, of course, that the murderer is a country physician with access to lethal drugs. His insufferable wife is merely his first victim, because once you commit a perfect murder, the temptation is to try another one. The A.B.C. Murders (1936) by Agatha Christie Poirot is investigating a “madman” who, it appears, is alphabetically obsessed, killing off Alice Ascher in Andover followed by Betty Barnard in Bexhill. Etcetera.

This is the textbook example of hiding one specific premeditated murder among a host of others, hoping that the detectives will suspect the work of a lunatic. Double Indemnity (1943) by James M. Cain This is my favorite Cain, mostly because of the grim fatalistic ending. But the murder at the center of the book—an insurance agent plots with femme fatale Phyllis Nirdlinger to off her husband—is brilliantly executed. It’s a classic staged murder; the husband is killed in a car then placed on the train tracks to make it look as though he fell off the smoking car at the rear of the train. Walter Huff, her insurance agent lover, impersonates the husband on the train, ensuring that witnesses will attest to the murdered man’s presence. Strangers on a Train (1950) by Patricia Highsmith My pick for the most ingenious of them all. Two men, each with someone they want dead, plan to swap murders, ensuring that the other has an alibi at the time of the murder. Because there is zero connection between the two men—they briefly talk on a train—the murders become unsolvable. In theory, of course.

And Highsmith, despite the brilliance of the plot, was more interested in the ideas of coercion and guilt, of one man exerting his will on the other. The finished novel is both fascinating and rotten to the core, like most of Highsmith’s oeuvre. The Drowner (1963) by John D. MacDonald MacDonald, my choice for underrated master of midcentury crime fiction, rarely dabbled in whodunits. He was far too interested in the criminal mind to keep his villains hidden until the end. The Drowner is an outlier, then, and a good one. The killer devises a way to drown his or her victims so that it looks exactly like an accident. Deathtrap (1978) by Ira Levin Not a novel, of course, but a play, although I highly recommend reading it, along with seeking out the excellent 1982 film. You’ll never look at Christopher Reeve in the same way again. It’s a brilliant, funny stage thriller that manages to be both the genuine article, and a satirical one, at the same time.

The first murder—a wife with a weak heart—is clever in its construction, but also foolproof. Heart attacks are a natural death, even when they aren’t. The Secret History (1992) by Donna Tartt Like Malice Aforethought, another “inverted” murder mystery, in which a small cadre of classics students at a New England university kill one of their own. We know the who long before we know the why. The murder itself is simple in its execution; Bunny Corcoran is pushed into a ravine during his traditional Sunday hike. What makes it stand out is ringleader Henry Winter’s explanation of the crime —that they are “allowing Bunny to choose the circumstances of his own death.” They are not even sure of his planned route for that day but wait at a likely spot, wanting to make the death seem random instead of designed. What follows is a chilling exploration of remorse and guilt. Truth is, it was a hard list to put together. I thought it would be easier to come up with examples of perfect murders in fiction, but it just wasn’t.

That’s why I included Deathtrap, even though it’s a play and not a book. I’d actually never even read Ira Levin’s original script or even seen it onstage. I was just a fan of the film. Also, looking back on the list now, it’s clear that The Drowner, a book I really do love, doesn’t quite belong here. The murderer lurks at the bottom of a pond with an oxygen tank, then pulls her victim down into the depths. It’s a fun concept, but highly unlikely, and hardly foolproof. How does she know where to wait? What if someone else is at the pond? I suppose that, once pulled off, it is a crime that truly looks like an accident, but I think I just put the book on the list because of how much I love John D. MacDonald. I suppose I also wanted something slightly obscure, something that hadn’t been turned into a movie. After I posted it, Claire told me she loved the writing, and John, my boss, was just relieved that the blog had been started.

I waited for comments to appear, allowing myself brief fantasies in which the piece would start an online frenzy, blog readers chiming in to argue about their own favorite murders. NPR would call and ask me to come on-air to discuss the very topic. In the end, the blog piece got two comments. The first came from a SueSnowden who wrote, Wow!! Now I have so many new books to add to my pile!! and the second came from ffolliot123 who wrote, Anyone who writes a list of perfect murders that doesn’t have at least one John Dickson Carr on it obviously knows nothing about anything. The thing about John Dickson Carr is that I just can’t get into those books, even though the commenter was probably right in calling out their absence. Carr specialized in locked-room murder mysteries, impossible crimes. It seems ridiculous now but at the time I was bothered by the opinion, probably because I agreed with it to a certain degree. I even considered a follow-up post—maybe something like “Eight More Perfect Murders.” Instead, my next post was a list of my favorite mystery novels from the previous year, and I wrote the entire thing in about an hour. I also figured out how to link the titles of the books to our online store, and, for that, John was extremely grateful.

“We’re just trying to sell books here, Mal,” he’d said. “Not trying to start arguments.”


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