Eight Detectives

Written by Alex Pavesi

Review written by LJ Hurst

Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung

Eight Detectives
Michael Joseph
RRP: £14.99
Released: August 20 2020

Psychologists have a word for those who see patterns where no pattern exists: pareidolia, but I think it does not apply to me. For in my recent reading, and by chance, I have thought over and over, “I didn’t see that coming”. The latest book to make me cry out “I didn’t see that coming” is Alex Pavesi’s Eight Detectives.

Eight Detectives is a brilliantly conceived novel in which a publisher’s editor has taken an out-of-print short story collection and gone to a present-day-ish island to talk to its author about republication. While talking, each of the eight stories is printed and then discussed by the two. Some of the stories are straight, some are twist-in-the-tale, there is even a condensed version of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Though now retired the author of the book within the book was once a brilliant mathematician who wrote this collection to prove that the elements of a detective story could be represented in mathematical or logical terms, using Venn diagrams. Think of two circles separate from each other: one represents the suspects, the other the detective. Now think of two circles one within another: the detective is also one of the suspects. Think of three separate circles: the detective, the suspects, and the murderer who was never one of the suspects. As each story appears (these are the odd numbered chapters, one to thirteen) the following discussion (in an even numbered chapter) reveals how each story can be Venn mapped, each in a different way to those previous. Yet the author, Grant McAllister, it is clear, can barely remember and explain his work, ground-breaking though it was. Nor can he explain the incongruous imagery to which his visitor, Julia Hart, draws his attention in questions of near forensic detail, even as she explains McAllister’s own rules of permutation to him.

Then – we are about five-sixths of the way through the book – a new style of chapter heading begins a complete reconsideration of everything that has gone before, including the stories we have read. This is where I started to think “I didn’t see that coming”. And that is where I stop before giving away any spoiler bar this one: from then on it was not just once that I thought “I didn’t see that coming”.

I said the story is present-day-ish. One reading of the dates suggests that Hart and McAllister are meeting in 1965 – twenty-five years after the short story collection, The White Murders, had first been published in 1940. To fans of meta-fiction, 1965 would fit because it was the publication date of John Fowles’ The Magus, a novel about a similarly disparate couple on a Mediterranean island, but that may be no more than serendipity. In publicity Alex Pavesi has talked about Agatha Christie and country houses, but the stories show other influences, many of them post Golden Age. The third story, for instance, “A Detective and his Evidence” is set in the grand houses around a tree-filled London square, but the detective and his motives are closer to those of G F Newman than Dorothy L Sayers or Freeman Wills Crofts. Construction of the whole novel apart, if you have liked the post-war short story collections of Julian Symons, Ngaio Marsh or Christianna Brand, you will recognise something of the same atmosphere here – crime stories, not stories of detection, even if there is a detective.

Eight Detectives, with its necessity to keep reconsidering what has gone before, even while we move to the solution of the mystery (yes, there is a solution, and Julia Hart is its detective), may make readers think of last year’s Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton (like Alex Pavesi a first time author), rather than Gilbert Adair’s Christie pastiches (The Act of Roger Murgatroyd, etc) of ten years ago. Unlike Evelyn Hardcastle, however, which required learning how to read a present tense, first person, point-of-view narrative (if one was not a video game player from which it was adopted) Eight Detectives makes no such demands. Eight Detectives, though, does require an understanding of rapaciousness, duplicity, evil and disappointment, or why someone such as Sarah on “Blue Pearl Island” should find such an odd way to achieve independence and happiness (and which my spoiler alert prevents me from revealing: just go read).

If you were thinking of abandoning crime fiction, on the grounds that plot and construction have disappeared before alcoholic amnesia and cosy botulism, then the originality of Eight Detectives could be enough to make you stop and reconsider. “I didn’t see that coming”, you’ll say.

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