The Story Behind Eight Perfect Murders
By Peter SwansonFebruary 26, 2020
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Most of the ideas for my books come in dribs and drabs. A premise will occur to me, then stick in my brain for a couple of months before another idea joins that first one. More often than not, these imagined novels wither on the vine. But sometimes they flower. It can take a year, sometimes more than a year. But with my newest book, Eight Perfect Murders, the idea dropped in my lap as close to fully formed as a book idea can be.
I was out walking, so I supposed the idea didn’t drop into my lap, per se. I was taking my usual loop around Walden Pond in Concord, a locale made famous by another writer, one with higher aspirations than thinking up perfect murders. I try and walk every afternoon, and in the summer times I do much of my walking at Walden Pond. It’s beautiful, but it also has the added advantage that if I get hot walking, there’s a lovely pond for swimming.
On the day that I conjured up Eight Perfect Murders, I had just begun my walk and I was trying to come up with a clever idea for a murder in a short story that I was writing. As usual, when I’m searching for inspiration, I don’t think about real life. I think about books and movies. As I was going over fictional murders in my mind, trying to remember some of the best ones, I had two thoughts in a row. The first was: What if someone made a list of the best fictional murders? And then my immediate second thought: What if someone else used that last to commit actual murders?
And there was the book. For the remainder of my walk I began to plot. And by the time I was back in the air conditioning of my car I knew almost the entire story. I knew who wrote the list, and I knew who the killer was. I knew their relationship, and I knew what many of the plot points in the book would be. This had never happened to me before, and it was both exhilarating and terrifying. I felt like I was carrying an overly-filled drink across a rambunctious party, worried I was going to spill it.
Of course, it only felt as though I had the whole story in my head. In the end I had to go back home and write the thing, putting in all the pesky details that make up a 300-page book. And things changed, of course, as they do. One thing that surprised me once I was deep into the novel was just how much the book was actually about reading. I already knew that I was writing a book about books, but when I began to think about my main character, Malcolm Kershaw, and what had formed him, I thought as much about the act of reading—of his relationship to reading, and the books that influenced him—as I did about any other biographical details.
It turned out that Malcolm’s reading habits, not entirely surprisingly, were also mine. He was an introverted kid who found enormous pleasure in reading books, especially crime novels. When he was around ten, he started pilfering any books he could find from either of his parents, and later on discovered a nearby used book store called Annie’s Book Swap (they were a franchise chain back then. Still are, but there are far fewer of them). It was there that he began buying up mid-century paperbacks. John D. MacDonald, Ed McBain, Alastair MacLean, Agatha Christie. Anything that had a cool, creepy cover. And pretty much every book in the mystery section at Annie’s Book Swap had a cool, creepy cover, so there were plenty of books to read.
Now that it’s coming out in the world, I like to think of Eight Perfect Murders as the closest I’ll ever get to writing an autobiographical novel. For those of us who are readers, we know that the books we read, especially the books we read at a certain age, form an integral part of our story. They are part of our experience. And one of the nicest things about books is that they don’t leave us. We can pick them up and dip back into them. We change, but they don’t.
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