The Eighth Detective: Alex Pavesi

Published by Picador and Michael Joseph (also published as The Eight Detectives)

An editor goes to a remote Mediterranean island to meet a reclusive writer, whose book her publisher wants to reprint.

In 1937, Grant McAllister drew up a set of mathematical rules for a murder mystery, and wrote seven stories to illustrate these rules. Because the book was never accepted for publication, he self-published it in the early 1940s.

Decades later, a publisher is interested in reprinting this book, and Julia Hart, an editor, travels to McAllister’s Mediterranean home to go over the book with him. As McAllister’s eyes are fading, he asks Julia to read the stories aloud.

As she reads the stories to him, she finds discrepancies: the description of a villa whose layout makes no sense; times that are mixed up (what the reader imagines is 9:30 am turns out to be 9:30 pm); and the use of the word black instead of white throughout a story (“black wine” instead of “white wine”).

McAllister claims the discrepancies are a trick to see if the reader is paying attention. But Julia realizes that the stories and the title of the book—The White Murders—contain clues to the actual unsolved murder of a young woman called Elizabeth White that took place in 1940.  

McAllister denies this, but he is clearly concealing something. Why would he suddenly leave his wife and disappear to a remote island? And who is Frances Grant, whose grave Julia finds in the local cemetery and whose lighter McAllister has? Each time Julia tries to ask him about his personal life, McAllistair shuts her out. What is he hiding? And why is Julia so keen to get to the bottom of this mystery?

I really enjoyed this book, almost until the end, in spite of the fact that the murder mystery rules seemed fairly obvious. The stories are clever. Most are in the whodunit tradition: confined spaces, gory murders, and a limited number of characters. And there is a twist in the tale that I did not see coming,

There are several nods to Agatha Christie: one story has echoes of Murder on the Orient Express; another has a man resembling Hercule Poirot making a brief appearance; and finally, “Trouble on Blue Pearl Island” is Christie’s And Then There Were None seen from the point of view of the people who arrive on the island after the murders.

If Alex Pavesi had kept the ending relatively simple, this would have been a brilliant book. But once the stories are read, the plot becomes unnecessarily convoluted. There is no need for the elaborate game that is played out (to give away more would be a spoiler). Everything Pavesi does could have been accomplished without it.

This is a pity because it is an unusual book, and could have been excellent.

Buy from Bookshop.org UK / Bookshop.org USA

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