An intriguing mystery novel, quite well executed
A young editor travels to a remote village in the Mediterranean in the hopes of convincing a reclusive writer to republish his collection of detective stories, only to realize that there are greater mysteries beyond the pages of books.
There are rules for murder mysteries. There must be a victim. A suspect. A detective. The rest is just shuffling the sequence. Expanding the permutations. Grant McAllister, a professor of mathematics, once sat down and worked them all out – calculating the different orders and possibilities of a mystery into seven perfect detective stories he quietly published. But that was thirty years ago. Now Grant lives in seclusion on a remote Mediterranean island, counting the rest of his days.
Until Julia Hart, a sharp, ambitious editor knocks on his door. Julia wishes to republish his book, and together they must revisit those old stories: an author hiding from his past, and an editor, keen to understand it.
But there are things in the stories that don’t add up. Inconsistencies left by Grant that a sharp-eyed editor begins to suspect are more than mistakes. They may be clues, and Julia finds herself with a mystery of her own to solve.
The synopsis for Alex Pavesi’s debut novel caught my attention some time ago, so I jumped at the chance to review it. It’s quite unlike any mystery novel I’ve read before, and with an intriguing premise/structure, it was a pretty good read.
The novel has an interesting structure. It’s a narrative framed around a series of short stories that one of the characters, a mathematician and one-time author, has written based on a paper he wrote. That paper was an examination of the mathematics of murder mysteries. The editor has approached Grant, in the hope of re-issuing The White Murders through the small press she says she works for. Julia has asked Grant to meet with her and go through the stories one by one, in order to gather insights for the new edition’s introduction. So, the story alternates between one of the stories followed by Grant and Julia’s discussion thereof. There is also some interesting discussion of the aforementioned “mathematics of murder mysteries”. The stories were varied, clever, and nicely in line with classic mystery stories and tropes.
The Eighth Detective is an inventive novel with a few interesting twists thrown in there for good measure. It leans heavily into the unreliability of mystery narrators and characters. I’m not sure that it necessarily breaks all the rules, as some of the promotional material suggests, but it did keep me guessing until the end — in part, though, because a number of twists come quite fast at the end.
Pavesi throws some interesting switcheroos at the reader in the final act of the novel, some of which were intriguing. I also wondered, a little bit, if the twists kind of made what came before unnecessary… While the short stories are interesting, I think I would have liked more discussion and story about Grant and Julia — there are some big reveals late in the novel, as I’ve already mentioned, but I nevertheless finished the book wanting to know more about the two protagonists. Because they didn’t feature as much as I’d hoped, the surprise reveals at the end didn’t have quite the impact that I think they were meant to have. I admit that I frequently have difficult with short story collections, in particular difficulty with getting sucked in for the duration. Even though there are connecting chapters, I got a little bit of this with The Eighth Detective.
If you’re looking for a mystery novel with a difference, and are a fan of golden age mystery fiction, then I think The Eighth Detective could suit your interests.
Alex Pavesi’s The Eighth Detective is due to be published in North America by Henry Holt (August 4th), and in the UK by Michael Joseph (August 20th — as Eight Detectives).
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Review copy received from publisher