Hav­ing al­ready adapted clas­sic Poirot sto­ries for TV, best­selling au­thor An­thony Horowitz has now penned his play­ful homage to Agatha Christie – Mag­pie Mur­ders. Writ­ing ex­clu­sively for Crime Scene, he ex­plores our en­dur­ing ob­ses­sion with the who­dunit...


Where would we be without mur­der? It’s said that in Amer­ica, chil­dren have wit­nessed 8,000 mur­ders on tele­vi­sion be­fore they leave el­e­men­tary school. Per­son­ally, I’ve lost count of the num­ber of peo­ple I’ve killed in books and on TV: Foyle’s War, Poirot, New Blood, Mid­somer Mur­ders and so on. Peo­ple of­ten joke that no­body in their right mind would want to live in Mid­somer, given the high mor­tal­ity rate – but even the London-based soaps are crammed with vi­o­lent deaths. We’ve had 23 of them in Eas­ten­ders alone.

Great lit­er­a­ture too – from Mac­beth to Crime And Pun­ish­ment – has used mur­der as a pivot. It’s of­ten said that Edgar Al­lan Poe cre­ated the first de­tec­tive novel with The Mur­ders In The Rue Morgue, but Dick­ens and Wilkie Collins have also been associated with the genre. Even Sopho­cles’ Oedi­pus Rex, which be­gins with the death of King Laius, has been de­scribed as a mur­der mystery – one with a nasty twist.

When I was a teenager, I was drawn to Ja­cobean drama, which leaves the stage strewn with corpses and used some of the most ar­cane mur­der weapons ever de­vised – kiss­ing a poi­soned skull, wear­ing a poi­soned tu­nic or, more fa­mously, hav­ing a red hot poker in­serted in an un­com­fort­able place. “I know death hath ten thou­sand sev­eral doors, For men to take their ex­its,” said John Web­ster’s Duchess of Malfi, be­fore be­ing stran­gled her­self. We seem to have ex­am­ined them all.

What is it about vi­o­lent death that so ap­peals to us, and why does the who­dunit con­tinue to dom­i­nate? Agatha Christie is – with Shake­speare – the most suc­cess­ful writer of all time, and 40 years af­ter her death she still sells about five mil­lion books a year. Sher­lock Holmes is ev­ery­where. It’s the ques­tion I asked my­self be­fore I wrote Mag­pie Mur­ders, a who­dunit that at­tempts to prod and un­ravel the en­tire genre. These are some of the an­swers I came up with.

First of all, in a mur­der mystery, our at­ten­tion is seized very quickly and eas­ily. If I spend sev­eral pages de­scrib­ing a mar­ried man who owns a pizza restau­rant, you may not be in­ter­ested and you may choose to read some­thing else. But if I start by telling you that his wife has been found with her head in the pizza oven, ev­ery­thing changes. You start ask­ing ques­tions. What was their re­la­tion­ship? Who else was he see­ing? What did she know? It’s only hu­man to want to find out more.

This may also ex­plain, in­ci­den­tally, why the Bri­tish have al­ways been so good at this par­tic­u­lar type of writ­ing. As a na­tion, we tend to be quite re­served. It’s the “stiff up­per lip” of wartime, the lace cur­tains that hang over many a do­mes­tic drama. A crime novel al­lows us to rip all that apart, to go for what P.D. James (again sourc­ing John Web­ster) cheer­fully en­ti­tled The Skull Be­neath The Skin. When I was adapt­ing Caro­line Gra­ham’s very en­ter­tain­ing books for Mid­somer Mur­ders, I loved the way she man­aged to find all sorts of mad­ness and per­ver­sions seething be­hind the façades of seem­ingly re­spectable folk.

It’s in­ter­est­ing that in who­dunits, more than in any other sort of book, the reader and the main char­ac­ter – by which I mean the de­tec­tive – stand shoul­der to shoul­der. We travel to­gether. We have the same goal. Who com­mit­ted the mur­der and why? Part of the ge­nius of Co­nan Doyle was to recog­nise this and to re­flect it in his work. Sher­lock Holmes may be dif­fi­cult and even un­like­able. He’s cer­tainly very hard to pin

down. But then there’s Dr Wat­son, who is hu­mane, puz­zled, just wait­ing to be sur­prised. He is very much on the reader’s side and for this rea­son alone more than earns his place in­side 221B Baker Street.

And what other sort of book pro­vides such a sat­is­fy­ing con­clu­sion? Part of the rea­son we read is to make sense of the world around us but it’s only in a who­dunit where, fi­nally, ev­ery­thing is ex­plained, ev­ery­thing is laid out clearly. If only life were the same. It is the most com­fort­ing and com­fort­able of gen­res. When you set out, you know ex­actly where you are go­ing and (with the pos­si­ble ex­cep­tion of Ed­win Drood, of course, where the writer died be­fore the end), sat­is­fac­tion is guar­an­teed. Ul­ti­mately, who­dunits re­volve around the very sim­plest of for­mu­las, which I have char­ac­terised as A+ B = C. A is me. B is you. C is the rea­son why I want to kill you. And when you think about it, how many rea­sons ac­tu­ally are there? I can only think of three: greed, ha­tred and fear. But what’s fas­ci­nat­ing about the genre is just how many vari­a­tions there are. If you look at the work of Agatha Christie you’ll see that over 66 nov­els she ex­plored pretty much every pos­si­bil­ity… although part of the fun, for the writer, is think­ing up new ones. (I’ve just read So­phie Han­nah’s new Poirot novel, Closed Cas­ket, and she’s come up with a de­light­fully orig­i­nal rea­son for want­ing some­one dead.)

My favourite who­dunits? From Agatha Christie it would have to be And Then There Were None – bril­liantly adapted re­cently by the BBC. For at­mos­phere, the sheer sense of mystery, it’s hard to beat The Hound Of The Baskervilles. Re­cently I very much en­joyed The Truth About Harry Que­bert, a lit­er­ary teaser by Joël Dicker.

But my real favourite hasn’t yet been writ­ten. Al­fred Hitch­cock de­scribed it in his con­ver­sa­tions with François Truf­faut. It’s the open­ing of a film. You’re in an au­to­mated car assem­bly plant and you see the en­tire process of a car be­ing built. It’s as­sem­bled piece by piece, bolted to­gether by ma­chines, spray-painted, rolled off the pro­duc­tion line. There are no cut-aways. Fi­nally, the car is fin­ished. Some­one opens the driver’s door and a dead body falls out. Now, that’s one mystery I’d love to solve.

Mag­pie Mur­ders (Orion) is out on 6 Oc­to­ber.

What is it about vi­o­lent death that so ap­peals to us?

The Poirot episode “Dead Man’smir­ror” is one of 11 scripted by An­thony Horowitz.

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