Published by Henry Holt on August 4, 2020
Genres: Fiction, Mystery
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A thrilling, wildly inventive nesting doll of a mystery, in which a young editor travels to a remote village in the Mediterranean in the hopes of convincing a reclusive writer to republish his collection of detective stories, only to realize that there are greater mysteries beyond the pages of books.
There are rules for murder mysteries. There must be a victim. A suspect. A detective. The rest is just shuffling the sequence. Expanding the permutations. Grant McAllister, a professor of mathematics, once sat down and worked them all out – calculating the different orders and possibilities of a mystery into seven perfect detective stories he quietly published. But that was thirty years ago. Now Grant lives in seclusion on a remote Mediterranean island, counting the rest of his days.
Until Julia Hart, a sharp, ambitious editor knocks on his door. Julia wishes to republish his book, and together they must revisit those old stories: an author hiding from his past, and an editor, keen to understand it.
But there are things in the stories that don’t add up. Inconsistencies left by Grant that a sharp-eyed editor begins to suspect are more than mistakes. They may be clues, and Julia finds herself with a mystery of her own to solve.
Alex Pavesi's The Eighth Detective is a cerebral, inventive novel with a modern twist, where nothing is what it seems, and proof that the best mysteries break all the rules.
The fire behind him had finished burning. But in his soaked white suit he looked like a snowman, already starting to melt. I looked up from Alex Pavesi’s The Eighth Detective and toward my wife who lay on the couch, laptop in lap, across the room. “Well?” she asked expectedly, “Did you solve the mystery?”
“In a way,” I responded, then dove into my explanation…
The Eighth Detective was billed to me as a unique twist on the classic detective novel, a loving homage to the stories of Holmes, Poirot, Marple, Spade, and the rest. And though it’s a story type generally left behind post-WWII in favor of the forensics and tech-based shows of today, these stories all still hold a general fascination for the modern reader. Parvesi gives what it the equivalent of seven short detective stories throughout the book, with a break after each for a conversation (much like my introduction above) between the stories’ fictional author and his editor.
As the editor turns her educated eye on the stories to evaluate them, she begins to notice inconsistencies that the author can’t explain. Is it just amateurish writing? Sloppy storytelling? Or are they clues to something more? Even as the individual mysteries get solved, the reader feels a larger mystery brewing, one every bit as explosive as any of the seven short stories.
While the structure of The Eighth Detective is unique, the rigid back-and-forth format soon grows expected and wearisome, as Parvesi never really deviates from the story structure. By the third or fourth story, you know exactly what to expect and while evidence continues to build toward the overall twist, it never really deviates from that linear structure (or foreshadows a last-minute out-of-left-field set of twists).
In terms of the overarching story, the problem with The Eighth Detective is that you know everything until you don’t. And no evidence is given to the reader to play detective for it to have been otherwise. Out of the final four twists, one seemed self-evident, one I suspected but had no evidence for, and two were virtually unknowable. A good detective story has to obscure the truth while also telling you the truth. The detective story is meant to allow you to play detective. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle always put all the facts before you. Sherlock Holmes’ deductions may have been a bit of a reach at times, but they were based on written facts earlier in the book. The explanation was the revelation, not the fact.
In The Eighth Detective, Pavesi relies too much on changing the story after the fact. An “Aha, but if only you’d known!” The individual stories vary in their strength. Each only being a chapter long means that new characters are constantly being introduced. It’s a serialized type of storytelling that requires the author to be able to continually break the flow of the narrative, then suck the reader back in with a new story. It’s unique, ambitious, and only the very best writer could pull it off flawlessly. Unfortunately—and this may speak to me more than Pavesi—I found myself struggling to get back into the story by the fourth or fifth time around. The schtick simply lost its appeal.
That said, I credit Pavesi for a unique premise that pays homage to the famous storytelling style. I could see this working as an 8-episode limited series on some streaming service. As a book, it’s still a fun read, but it’s such an ambitious premise it was always going to be difficult to pull off. While Pavesi tries his absolute best, I think it falls just a bit short.