I am pleased to host an extract from Peter Swanson’s new book Rules For Perfect Murders as part of the #Rules For Perfect Murders blog tour.
Excerpt from Rules For Perfect Murders, by Peter Swanson Copyright March 2020
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 Book- store 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 Book- store 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 an- other 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 everyday 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.”
“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’?”
Rules for Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson published by Faber & Faber
If you want to get away with murder, play by the rules A series of unsolved murders with one thing in common: each of the deaths bears an eerie resemblance to the crimes depicted in classic mystery novels. The deaths lead FBI Agent Gwen Mulvey to mystery bookshop Old Devils. Owner Malcolm Kershaw had once posted online an article titled 'My Eight Favourite Murders,' and there seems to be a deadly link between the deaths and his list - which includes Agatha Christie's The ABC Murders, Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train and Donna Tartt's The Secret History. Can the killer be stopped before all eight of these perfect murders have been re-enacted?