Peter Swanson has created another lively homage to classic mystery puzzles in his new novel, Nine Lives. Much like his earlier book, Rules for Perfect Murders, several of the characters recognise the new story’s parallels to Golden Age murder mysteries and this time the resemblance is to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and The ABC Murders. However, Swanson gives them his own diabolical modern twists.
Nine people, strangers to each other, receive a letter containing a single sheet of paper with nine names on it in alphabetical order. The names aren’t familiar, the envelope lacks any identification. What is this? Why? And, as people would, the recipients react in predictable, but different ways. A couple ignore the letter completely, several rack their brains trying to figure out what it is and why their names are there. Ultimately, they chalk it up to some species of computer mistake. Only one views it with much suspicion. She’s a female FBI agent, and it’s her job to be suspicious.
A day or two later, when a man whose name is on the list is found dead, the keen ears of the agent’s FBI supervisor perk up. The deceased, Frank Hopkins, was a man in his 70s and owned the Windward Resort in Kennewick, Maine. If he drank a little too much and got a little hazy at times, what killed him was having his head pushed into a tidal pool where he drowned, a strange letter crumpled in his hand.
When the second victim is found shot to death, the possibility of a coincidence is too remote to contemplate. The FBI agent calls it ‘the second plane.’ On 9/11, when the first airplane hit the World Trade Centre, the shocked witnesses all thought it was a tragic accident; when the second plane hit, everyone’s assessment of the situation changed, immediately and completely.
The FBI begins a massive effort to track down the other people on the list, all but two of whom they do identify. They make sure they were recipients of the same letter, question them about the names and any connections between them, and offer police protection, which all but one of them accept. This makes no difference at all, as the next victim dies in his bed with a police officer sitting in his car in the driveway. Now you’re firmly in And Then There Were None territory.
As you read the pages devoted to the stories of each of the remaining people on the ‘death list,’ as they start calling it, these characters become quite well differentiated, all interesting in their own unique ways. Hopkins and one other man are over 70, but all the rest are in their early 30s or thereabouts. They’re wildly diverse in where they live (Massachusetts, Austin, Texas, Los Angeles, New York City) and what they do (aspiring actor, singer-songwriter, college professor, kept woman – does anyone still say that? – retiree, oncology nurse). Surprisingly, for the most part, they’re not deeply frightened, even as the body count rises. In one case, two people on the list begin messaging each other, then talking via Skype, and in a few short weeks, become a couple. (Humans!)
Meanwhile, you can’t help but troll the text for clues of buried commonalities that exist among or between the letter-holders. Several of them are estranged from their parents, three are in the arts, loosely speaking. Two have cats (nine lives?). That kind of thing. Despite the lack of connections, the FBI remains convinced the list was not simply random. Something ties these people together.
You’ll likely enjoy trying to work out the puzzle Swanson lays before you. I did. Of course, one little fact has been withheld that would clinch your theory, but Swanson does provide enough information to get there without it. This book strikes me as an ideal vacation read, as it moves swiftly while retaining a light touch, despite the mayhem.
Faber & Faber
CFL Rating: 4 Stars