Eight Detectives – Alex Pavesi

“The two suspects sat on mismatched furniture in the white and almost featureless lounge, waiting for something to happen.”

Thirty years ago Professor of Mathematics Grant McAllister worked out the set of ‘rules’ that make up a murder mystery. He then wrote a collection of short stories as examples of the various permutations. Now he’s been approached to have the work republished, and Julia Hart has turned up on his isolated little island. She wants to ask about the stories and the theory, of course, but then there’s the personal mystery. Why did he abruptly leave his life and seek out isolation? Why do the inconsistencies in the stories have a theme?

I was totally intrigued by this book. The alternating chapters of detective story followed by discussion of the tale works well, especially after the opening story. It was fascinating, but quite stylised and yes, with those (plot point) inconsistencies, and not at first realising it was a tale-within-a-tale I wasn’t sure it was going to work. In a short story? More than fine! More so, even, when the discussion starts.

The short stories are good, very reminiscent of Agatha Christie – indeed, in-book the connections are mentioned. A few will therefore seem quite familiar, but they are kept very brief – the proposed in-book publication would have been very slender! Once you know about those ‘purposeful’ inconsistencies, too, it becomes a little puzzle: read a short story, spot the issue that’s going to be revealed straight away.

I also really liked this idea that there a … not formula, but set of rules that make a murder mystery. The mathematics aren’t dense or particularly important to fully follow, but have to say, set theory, Venn diagrams – right up my alley! 🙂

However, the thing that then raises the book is the mystery in the framing tale, which you sense very early on has a whole other layer. The combination was going to score very highly from me – I loved the read, and the explanations – but somehow the ending didn’t quite work for me. It’s not bad by any means, but there’s a convolution or two too many, and the lack of tightness or as much impact as it could have had feels like it lets the rest down just a little.

Still, I recommend, particularly for fans of old-school mysteries, and anyone with an interest in the building blocks of writing.

Note: this book was published as The Eighth Detective in the US.

NetGalley eARC: 352 pages / 17 chapters
First published: 2020
Series: none
Read from 18th-23rd August 2020

My rating: 8/10

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