Alex Pavesi – Eight Detectives (2020)


As I read and write and think a lot about detective and crime fiction, I’m starting to put together quick, bite-size reviews of the books in these genres. Sadly, capacity is too limited to cover all the films and TV series I watch too, but these might be added in the future

The ‘see also’ section below gives you a hint of the story, its themes, and its style, and is spoiler-free, but reviews themselves aren’t guaranteed to be thus!

If you’re interested in reading my academic work about detective and crime fiction (free PDFs available), check it out here.

See also

These lists capture other detective/crime stories and characters that I thought of as I was reading this piece. I won’t explain why, to avoid spoilers, but they’re associations and not ‘if you liked this, then you’ll love…’ recommendations!

  • Murder by Numbers (the 2002 film)
  • Numb3rs (the TV series)
  • Various recent Agatha Christie TV adaptations
  • Too many to list for the various individual stories contained in the novel itself!

Review (4 out of 5)

I re-read this book recently after listening to Death of the Reader‘s take on it. I had recently had a hazy memory of one of the short stories encased within this metafictional text, and it had taken me a while to remember where it was from, so the DotR episodes were a useful nudge to make me get the book out of the library again.

I really enjoyed reading this book both times, although of course the re-read of any mystery story is always a very different experience. Eight Detectives is relatively short for a novel that includes so many different tales, and it’s an easy read because of the seven self-contained narratives.

The ‘twist’ of the book – that the supposed editor has been changing the ending of each of these stories in an attempt to trick the purported author and show him as a fraud – is illustrative of how all detective fiction endings are really arbitrary and, thus, more or less interchangeable. Any number of outcomes must be equally plausible in order to generate the suspense required for mystery stories. The variety between their settings and tones creates interest outside of the metafictional narrative itself, and there is some amusement to be had in identifying the fictional inspirations for some of the short stories’ plots and settings. The novel plays heavily on the joy of the same-but-differentness of adaptations, and some of the stories here, such as ‘Blue Pearl Island’ deserve almost to be placed into that category, such is their explicit referentiality. That story in particular has such strong resonances of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, and the premise of Eight Detectives itself plays on the changeability of classic stories, as we see regularly in Christie adaptations on TV that modify the tale’s ending to generate new suspense.

The ostensible premise for The White Murders, the collection of stories within the novel, about which the two main characters meet, is the notion of mathematically defining murder mysteries. In the way that it is framed, I don’t find this premise very compelling. Although in principle it’s very alluring – I love a good definition with which to quarrel and quibble, like all academics – it is also somehow under-theorised. It falls (I suspect in part deliberately) into the category of traditional detective’s bluster: the false claim that a compelling chain of logic leads to only one conclusion. The definition is trite, although the outcome of a set of stories testing various permutations is ultimately interesting. I might have been more engaged with this premise if there were more actual maths in it. Give us some set notation, at least! V = {1, 2, 3, …} and D = {1, 2, 3, …}? At one point, Francis-as-Grant draws for Julia some Venn diagrams, but we don’t get to see them. Murder mystery fans tend to love maps, diagrams, puzzles, and the like. It’s hard to see why Eight Detectives didn’t include at least some of this.

Perhaps this seems a minor quibble, and not worthy of the lost point, but I cannot quite give it a full 5 out of 5 for another reason, too: I would have preferred slightly more punch with the ending offered to Julia. What, really, is the outcome of this little masquerade? The stakes for her seem, ultimately, strangely low. What are the stakes of the Elizabeth White murder (a killing committed by the The White Murders’ original author)? Perhaps this is in part the book paling in comparison with the theories of the novel that Death of the Reader presented. The podcast’s structure involves reading in parts, with different theories presented, sometimes quite outlandish. However, I do think there is ultimately a failure of execution in the final moments. The novel is full of carefully constructed resonances and neatly shaped doppelgangers: not just the stories themselves with their multiple endings, but also Francis taking over his dead lover’s identity as Grant to steal the stories, just as Grant stole the stories from Elizabeth White. But the final pair of endings, Julia’s and Francis-as-Grant’s, don’t quite come together as a compelling denouement unravelling, or revealing, that multiplicity.

Alex Pavesi’s Eight Detectives was Book 1 of my 2022 reading adventure. You can also see the whole list for 2022, and look back to 2021.

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