Eight Detectives by Alex Pavesi

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Eight Detectives by Alex Pavesi

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Category: Crime (Historical)
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: It's rare that you can describe a crime novel as 'original', but it's the only way of desribing Eight Detectives. An excellent, highly recommended read.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: August 2020
Publisher: Michael Josephs
ISBN: 978-0241433560

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It's 1930 and Megan and Henry are staying with Bunny at his house in Spain. It's unbearably hot and Bunny drank too much at lunch: he's going to have a rest and then he wants to talk to Megan and Henry about something serious. Only it never gets that far: when Bunny doesn't emerge after his siesta his guests find that he's been murdered. How can that have happened? There's no one else in the house, so one of them must be the killer.

Those are the bones of the first story which editor Julia Hart has read to the author of The White Murders, Grant McAllister. It's thirty years since the collection of short stories was first published by a professor of mathematics who wanted to explore The Permutations of Detective Fiction, and Hart's publisher, Blood Type Books (isn't that a wonderful name?) wants to republish the stories. Hart has gone to visit McAllister on the Mediterranean island where he's lived in seclusion for decades. She wants to check through the stories for any inconsistencies and find out something about the author for publicity purposes.

For each requirement of a mystery novel (such as the need for a victim, the optimum number of suspects, who can be the detective) there's a short story to illustrate the point. Over a few days, Hart reads these to McAllister and then they discuss any inaccuracies and probe the deeper meaning of the story. She can't resist pushing McAllister for personal information - and it obviously makes the author uneasy.

The stories are good. I did think that they were perhaps not top-of-the-range but there's a good reason for that which will become clear in due course. They're very much stories of their time - the mid-twentieth century - when the police were not quite so vigorously restricted as they are now. Don't ask me to use my fist on a child one officer tells his superior. There's an excellent variety in the stories too.

Hart's sensitive. When McAllister fails to eat some his mussels at dinner she ensures that she leaves some too. Her probing into the author's past, and into a murder which happened in 1940 and which seems to be foreshadowed and echoed in the stories, is subtle but demanding. You won't realise just how subtle Hart has been until you get to the final pages.

When talking about books the word original is dramatically overused, so it almost seems too tame to use it to describe Eight Detectives, but I can't think of a better description. I have never read anything quite like it. The characters are excellent, both in the short stories and in the over-arching narrative. That's a very considerable achievement as different skills are required in short stories and the long-form novel. The individual plots are clever too - you'll realise quite how clever when you finish the book.

Did I work out what had happened? I wasn't even close, but all the clues were there. It's a book to read for the sheer enjoyment of it - and then to read again to see how it was done. I'd like to thank the publishers for letting Bookbag have a review copy.

If you are a fan of crime short stories we can recommend Miraculous Mysteries (British Library Crime Classics) by Martin Edwards (editor). For something else that's a bit different, you might enjoy Black Chalk by Christopher J Yates.

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