‘Mag­pie Mur­ders’ serves two mys­ter­ies at once

Horowitz’s book within a book puts a spin on genre’s con­ven­tions

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - BOOKS - Steph Cha

Few con­tem­po­rary au­thors are more ac­quainted with the craft of clas­sic crime fic­tion than English writer An­thony Horowitz.

His many mys­tery nov­els in­clude two Sher­lock Holmes ti­tles and a James Bond, done with the bless­ing of the Arthur Co­nan Doyle and Ian Flem­ing es­tates. His TV cred­its in­clude scripts for Agatha Christie’s Poirot and the long-run­ning se­ries Mid­somer Mur­ders.

His lat­est novel, Mag­pie Mur­ders (Harper, 496 pp., eeeE), is a clever med­i­ta­tion on the who­dunit genre by one of its ex­perts. Self-ref­er­en­tial even by crime fic­tion stan­dards (the ti­tle’s sim­i­lar­ity to Mid­somer Mur­ders is noted more than once), it’s a sharp novel about lit­er­a­ture and pub­lish­ing in the form of not one, but two en­ter­tain­ing by-thenum­bers pot­boil­ers.

Mag­pie Mur­ders takes its ti­tle from the book within the book, the ninth and fi­nal in­stall­ment in au­thor Alan Con­way’s in­ter­na­tion­ally best-selling At­ti­cus Pünd mys­tery se­ries, the man­u­script of which ac­counts for half of Horowitz’s novel.

In the words of Con­way’s ed­i­tor Su­san Rye­land, head of fic­tion at Clover­leaf Books and Horowitz’s nar­ra­tor, “Alan had cap­tured some­thing of ‘the golden age’ of Bri­tish who­dunits with a coun­try-house set­ting, a com­pli­cated mur­der, a cast of suit­ably ec­cen­tric char­ac­ters and a de­tec­tive who ar­rived as an out­sider,” and he used that for­mula to at­tain enor­mous wealth and a broad read­er­ship.

Alan’s novel shows a dy­ing At­ti­cus Pünd tack­ling one last case, in­ves­ti­gat­ing the sus­pi­cious death of a house­keeper and the mur­der of her em­ployer in the vil­lage of Saxby-on-Avon. The place is hop­ping with in­trigue, as most of its res­i­dents re­sent­ful of landowner Sir Mag­nus Pye. As the town doc­tor tells At­ti­cus: “The fact is that half the vil­lage will have been glad to see him dead and if you’re look­ing for sus­pects, well, they might as well form a line.”

When the real world starts re­sem­bling Alan’s novel — not just in the bor­rowed back sto­ries and stolen de­tails, but with miss­ing doc­u­ments and shifty char­ac­ters and a death that smells like mur­der — Su­san finds her­self in the role of de­tec­tive. She ex­plores the com­plex re­la­tion­ship be­tween au­thor and cre­ation.

There’s a lot of hand-wring­ing about the lit­er­ary merit of Alan’s books, and by ex­ten­sion, the genre in which Horowitz has spent most of his ca­reer.

Mag­pie Mur­ders is, in a way, pro­tected from crit­i­cism. Su­san, an avid crime reader, is just as dis­sat­is­fied as the reader by the in­ter­ven­tion of wild co­in­ci­dence.

Still, the book could be shorter and more in­ci­sive. But it is an en­joy­able read, with two sat­is­fy­ing mys­ter­ies for the price of one.

JON CARTWRIGHT

An­thony Horowitz dou­bles down on the who­dunits.

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