Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson

Classic mystery–lovers will devour Eight Perfect Murders, Peter Swanson’s clever homage to masters of the form. But those who can’t tell James M. Cain from Michael Caine shouldn’t be put off—you don’t have to be a connoisseur to be seduced by this gripping novel. Its narrator, Malcolm Kershaw, runs a mystery bookstore in Boston called Old Devils. At first, Kershaw comes off as a typical mystery nerd, mildly disaffected and solitary, devoted to imported beers and just squeaking by with the store.

One dreary winter day follows another for Kershaw, a 40-ish widower, and he seems O.K. with that. But when an F.B.I. agent drops by Old Devils to question him about “Eight Perfect Murders,” a list he once posted on the store’s blog, his musty routine is disrupted. The agent suspects that someone has been replicating the ingenious murders from classics on his list, by Patricia Highsmith, John D. MacDonald, Agatha Christie, and others. Did some random homicidal mastermind just happen to stumble upon the blog post, Kershaw wonders, or is there a more logical explanation?

Swanson gives us fair warning that Kershaw is playing a cat-and-mouse game with the reader: “I don’t trust narrators any more than I trust the actual people in my life. We never get the whole truth, not from anybody.” And when it comes to omitting information, he points out that the narrator of Rebecca never mentions her own name. But some large crumbs are dropped along the way, and the book overflows with diverting literary listicles and tidbits. Multi-layered and ambiguous to the end, Eight Perfect Murders also contains a bonus for the mystery neophyte—its eponymous list is an excellent syllabus for Crime Fiction 101.

The Last Passenger by Charles Finch

Sometimes a series can be re-invigorated by going way back—to before the beginning. If it worked for the Star Wars franchise, why not for Charles Lenox? Charles Finch’s series featuring this character began in 1865 when Lenox was well into his 30s, settled into his life as a Victorian gentleman detective with a passion for solving crimes. Ten books later, Finch debuted a successful prequel trilogy by recalling Lenox’s very first case as a green 23-year-old. Now the trilogy is wrapping up with The Last Passenger, which reveals more about Lenox’s backstory, including his relationships with the much-adored countess next door, Lady Jane Grey, and his invaluable valet, Graham. At 27, Lenox is honing his deductive techniques and learning to be good-humored about his awkward place in society: a marriageable but untitled young man with unusual interests and something less than a fortune—“At a party like this, everyone was hoping to see someone or other; and so often it wasn’t you.”

A young man never makes it to Paddington Station in Charles Finch’s new novel.

The Last Passenger finds Lenox assisting Scotland Yard on a case devoid of evidence, involving a young man’s gruesome murder in the third-class carriage of a Paddington Station–bound train. Not only has the victim been stripped of baggage and identification, but the labels of his clothing have been removed, making him virtually untraceable. However, there’s something about the cut of his jacket that points Lenox toward America, in contrast to Scotland Yard’s knee-jerk assumption that it’s a local, gang-related retribution. When his hunch turns out to be right, Lenox works with an American marshal and a former slave to uncover a devious conspiracy involving the slave trade and abolition in the U.S. Immersed in the nuances of the British aristocracy and the unsettled politics of the day, The Last Passenger is a seriously satisfying close to the Young Lenox origin story.

Pretty As A Picture by Elizabeth Little

What a great ear Elizabeth Little has! The California writer’s prose style is so nimble and engaging, her dialogue so smart and quippy, you’d follow her anywhere, in this case to an island off of Delaware that has been transformed into a teeming, claustrophobic movie set. Hingham House happens to be the same spot where the real-life death of a young woman depicted in the film occurred, a rather creepy location choice by tyrannical director Tony Rees, who has just fired his editor (among others) and scooped up a reluctant Marissa Dahl to replace him. Marissa is a total pro, consumed by the editing process as only a movie geek can be, but her O.C.D. tendencies and difficulty reading social cues make life beyond the editing bay a challenge.

Hingham House, a rather creepy setting, it turns out, for Elizabeth Little’s Pretty as a Picture.

She is not thrilled to be working on another movie about a dead girl that will put her on set—editors do most of their work after production—but her options are limited and Rees has won Oscars, so off she goes to what turns out to be an ominously troubled shoot. After she’s attacked in the projection room and soon after stumbles across the body of an important cast member, her job becomes a seriocomic struggle for survival, abetted by the production’s ex–navy SEAL security chief and two irrepressible teenage girls on summer break. Though Pretty as a Picture is essentially a mystery, it’s also a sharply detailed satire of movie-set misbehavior and Hollywood’s absurd sense of entitlement, filtered through the cynical eye of an under-appreciated editor. It’s Marissa’s curse and her blessing that she misses nothing, so it’s not surprising that she turns out to be a decent detective. And despite her dismal view of her own people skills, she’s hilariously good company on the page.

Lisa Henricksson reviews mystery books for Air Mail. She lives in New York City