Author 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 in this new story recognize parallels to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (Ten Little Indians) and The ABC Murders—but Swanson gives these plot devices his own diabolical modern twists.
Nine strangers 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. The recipients react in predictable, but different ways. A couple of them ignore the letter completely, several rack their brains trying to figure out what it means. Ultimately, most 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 seventies 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 tide pool where he drowned, a mysterious letter crumpled in his hand.
When a second person whose name is on the list is found shot to death, the possibility of a coincidence is too remote to contemplate. The FBI agent calls it “the second plane.” When the first airplane hit the World Trade Towers on 9/11, the shocked witnesses all assumed it was a tragic accident; when the second plane hit, everyone’s assessment changed, immediately and completely.
The FBI begins a massive effort to track down the seven remaining people, all but two of whom they do eventually identify and question. The recipients are clueless and the police offer protection. This makes no difference at all, as the next victim dies in his bed with a police officer sitting in the driveway. Now you’re firmly in And Then There Were None territory.
The people on the list are all interesting in their own ways, mostly under 40, but wildly diverse in where they live and what they do (aspiring actor, singer-songwriter, college professor, kept woman—does anyone still know what that means?—retiree, oncology nurse). Surprisingly, they’re mostly not deeply frightened, even as the body count rises.
Meanwhile, you can’t help but troll the text for clues of buried commonalities among the letter recipients. Several are estranged from their parents, three are in the arts, loosely speaking, two have cats (nine lives?). That kind of thing. 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 through the mayhem, while retaining a light touch.