‘Magpie Murders’ serves two mysteries at once
Horowitz’s book within a book puts a spin on genre’s conventions
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.
Anthony Horowitz doubles down on the whodunits.