Nine Lives by Peter Swanson: An outstanding crime read - book review -

Nine anonymous letters, a list of nine names… nine strangers singled out for death

By Pam Norfolk
Tuesday, 22nd February 2022, 12:30 pm
Nine Lives by Peter Swanson
Nine Lives by Peter Swanson

If that sounds like the plot for an Agatha Christie mystery, you wouldn’t be far off the mark as Peter Swanson, American master of the psychological thriller, harnesses the much-loved tropes of the Golden Age for a supremely clever and cryptic page-turner that will delight his army of fans.

With more than a nod to Christie’s classic And Then There Were None, this talented writer brings us a chilling, thrilling and high stakes feast of baffling conundrums and serpentine twists as the race begins to find an elusive and ruthless killer who is on a countdown through a series of murders.

Best known for suspense-packed novels like The Girl with a Clock for a Heart, Eight Perfect Murders and Every Vow You Break, Swanson once again turns his razor-sharp mind and prodigious imagination to the fiendish brand of murderous magic which has made this Massachusetts author such a perennial favourite.

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And Nine Lives should come with a warning to prepare for a single-sitting reading marathon as Swanson plunges us head-first into an addictive and deftly executed crime mystery which positively crackles with menace and suspense, and will keep you guessing right through to the last-gasp finale.

If you’re on the list, someone wants you dead… nine strangers from all corners of the US receive a list with their names on it in the mail. It’s a single, folded sheet of paper with no clue as to who sent it or where it came from.

None of the nine people know or have ever met the others on the list. Some dismiss it with a shrug as junk mail and some as just a fluke. One woman, whose extravagant lifestyle is financed by her wealthy lover, senses ‘something vaguely threatening’ about the list, and Jessica Winslow, an FBI agent in New York who is also on the list, is baffled by the cryptic letter and sends it off to forensics.

The group of disconnected people are not too worried until very bad things begin to happen. First, Frank Hopkins, a well-liked elderly resort owner, is found drowned, his head pushed into a rock pool on a beach in the small town of Kennewick, Maine.

Then Matthew Beaumont, a father who is currently stressed by his hectic and chaotic family life, is shot in the back while running through his quiet neighbourhood in suburban Dartford in Massachusetts.

A frightening pattern is emerging, but what do these nine people have in common? Their professions range from oncology nurse to aspiring actor, and they are located all over the country. So why are they all on the list, and who sent it?

Jessica Winslow is determined to find out. Could there be some dark secret that binds them all together, or is the list the work of a murderous madman? As the mysterious sender stalks the nine strangers, they find themselves looking over their shoulders and wondering who will be crossed off next.

In trademark style, Swanson refuses to allow his ingenious story to run headlong into the action, instead taking time to create a concise but enthralling portrait of his lead players, offering up tantalising revelations from their personal histories and back-stories to give a glimpse into not just who they are, but what makes them tick.

And after an intriguing opener, in which each of the nine disparate people receive their letters, the pace begins to accelerate. The bodies mount up, the mystery over the killer’s identity deepens, and a sense of unease grows that not a single person on the list will survive.

As always, Swanson challenges his readers with a scattering of clues which help to make the plot not just more vaguely plausible but an entertaining ride as the clock ticks down and those of us still left racking our brains meet the final, gobsmacking twist of truth.

With the author’s psychological insight adding to the thrill of the cat-and-mouse game, the delight of a contemporary twist on a popular Christie plot, the best of the classic traditions to enjoy, and a cast of perfectly drawn, credible players, Nine Lives is already in prime position as one of the year’s most outstanding crime reads.

(Faber & Faber, hardback, £12.99)