Homage or sendup? ‘The Eighth Detective’ is above all a puzzle

Reading The Eighth Detective (2020) by Alex Pavesi was a bit of a rollercoaster ride. It started promisingly, then got to the point where I thought I hated it, then became intriguing again, and ended with me contemplating re-reading the whole thing in light of knowing the ending. I didn’t do that, but I’m left feeling unsure how to characterize it.

The book is structured as a series of short mystery stories, purportedly written many years ago by a mathematician to prove his thesis that mysteries have a finite structure and can be reduced to just seven variations. Each of the seven stories in the collection are meant to illustrate one of the ways that the essential character types — victim(s), suspects, detective(s), and murderer(s) — can be mixed and matched. As the mathematician explains to Julia, the publisher who wants to sell a new edition of the stories:

”We mustn’t forget that the central purpose of a murder mystery is to give its readers a handful of suspects and the promise that in about a hundred pages one or more of them will be revealed as the murderers. That’s the beauty of the genre.”

Pavesi intersperses the seven short mysteries with chapters that recount conversations between Grant and Julia. She reads each story aloud to Grant and then they discuss it, with Julia pressing for explanations of inconsistencies she has noticed, and Grant playing coy about whether they are mistakes or deliberate. Those chapters also serve up another mystery: Why did this successful mathematician retreat to a Mediterranean island and become a virtual hermit? Why doesn’t he want to talk about his previous life?

I found the individual mysteries themselves mediocre at best, and for all I know that’s intentional on Pavesi’s part. After all, they are meant to have been written by a mathematician, not an experienced author. The more interesting bits are the dialogues between Grant and Julia as they discuss the previous story within the framework of the seven possible permutations Grant originally devised. The mystery of Grant’s origins is probably what kept me reading to the end, just to find out why he was being so secretive. And the surprise twist-within-a-twist ending was clever, but I finished the book feeling a bit unfulfilled, like eating a rice cake when what you really want is a big bowl of ice cream.

But I know a fair number of people who enjoy thinking about how mystery writers structure their stories, and would be intrigued by the idea that all mysteries can be reduced to a finite set of variations. Those folks might want to read samples of each supposed type along with an overarching mystery that promises a surprise. If that’s you, The Eighth Detective may be just what you were looking for.

Published by Julia

I learned to read before I started kindergarten, and I haven't stopped yet.

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