MAKING A MURDER MYSTERY
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.