Source: Review Copy (Orion Books)
Before reading this book I hadn’t read anything by Anthony Horowitz, so I was unsure what to expect, though I was aware he had written some continuation novels involving Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty. Magpie Murders (2016) is a challenging book to summarise due to its text within a text nature, but I’ll give it my best shot. The story begins with Susan Ryeland, an editor for Clover Books, who warns us about the book we are about to read, a book she has also read, which she says changed her life forever. The book in question is the Magpie Murders, the 9th book in the Atticus Pünd series written by Alan Conway, a mystery series which is decidedly a part of the golden age genre. So how can such a story radically change your life, to the extent in Ryeland’s case that she changes jobs and loses a number of friends? This is a question which is only answered in the final third of the novel, but first we have Conway’s Magpie Murders.
Conway’s novel which has all the usual opening pages of a novel, including critical reviews purporting to be from Ian Rankin and Robert Harris, is set in 1955 and most of the action takes place in a village named Saxby-on-Avon. It opens with the funeral of Mary Elizabeth Blakiston, the housekeeper of Pye Hall, who died after what is supposed to have been an accidental fall down the stairs of a locked house. Yet village gossip soon suggests otherwise, with Mary’s son, Robert being hinted at as her murderer. This of course leads his fiancée Joy Sanderling to call on Atticus Pünd, yet it seems he has problems of his own (an inoperable brain tumour) and she goes away again. However, Pünd soon sweeps his personal problems to one side when two weeks after the death of Mary, the owner of Pye Hall, Sir Magnus also dies, this time definitely murder. As in all good golden age mysteries there is a plethora of reasons for either of these two characters dying at the hands of another. Mary was a busybody who poked her nose into the affairs of others and knew the village’s guilty secrets. As to Sir Magnus, motives range from anger at his plans to build houses on the Dingle Dell woods, to his wife who is having an affair and his twin sister who he has treated very badly over the years. Pünd’s investigation also causes him to look into another mysterious death from the past, one which marred Mary and her family’s lives ever since.
The final third of the novel returns us to Susan Ryeland and her narrative. I don’t want to say too much about this section of the book, as I think it is best to know very little about it. However, I will say that the events in Conway’s novel take on an increasingly sinister importance as events unfold for Ryeland, taking her on a mystery and detecting adventure of her own.
From the very first page I definitely got good feelings about Horowitz as a writer, as even in the opening sentences he is able to completely wrong foot you, writing transparently but in a way where the reader can fall into traps of their own assumptions. This definitely happened to me, as when you start reading you’re not sure of the gender of the narrator and for me the initial descriptions of their actions came across to me as male, yet of course I was completely wrong as the narrator is Susan Ryeland. This good feeling about Horowitz’s style continued and I think he is very adept at letting information filter through his narrative, rather than dumping information on the reader up front. I really enjoyed this aspect of the book as it made me pay attention more to what I was reading, selecting information to create theories and deductions about the characters, which is ideal in a mystery novel and it also maintains a sinister atmosphere.
Horowitz’s Golden Age Styled Novel
As I mentioned earlier this is a novel within a novel as Horowitz through his character Conway does actually write a complete mystery novel in the golden age vein, which is no mean feat and it is especially no mean feat that he does this exceptionally well. Not only is the setting and atmosphere right, as well as the plot events and character types, but Horowitz also gets the more subtle aspects to golden age detective fiction right, such as the character dynamics between Pünd, his assistant and the police and also the way in which the reader cannot take anything or anyone on first impressions, with Mary the victim in particular going from a woman who helps a lot around the village to a ‘malignant spirit’ which appears out of nowhere as though summoned up in people’s homes. Of course the solution is a crucial aspect of the golden age detective novel and like Christie the clues are often found in characters’ conversations and writing. The solution to Conway’s Magpie Murders is very satisfying and quite clever, with the clues hidden in plain sight, yet misinterpreted by the reader – there is one in particular which really wrong footed me! Like Christie, Horowitz uses familiar tropes but turns them on their heads and also incorporates a nursery rhyme, a motif which runs through a number of Christie’s books. There are many allusions to Christie and her work, some of which are pointed out to the reader, such as place names and even Christie’s grandson, Mathew Pritchard has a cameo appearance.
I felt Pünd deserved a section of his own as he is an integral part of Horowitz’s golden age mystery and there is no denying he owes a lot to Hercule Poirot. Like him he used to work as a policeman, but is now a private detective and he was also a refugee, though in WW2, which entailed a time in a German concentration camp. Yet there are a few little tweaks and changes which I found interesting. For one thing Pünd is less fussy about orderliness and the luxuries of life, with his own bedroom being very austere and it is actually his assistant, James Fraser who is concerned about comfortable travel accommodation. Moreover, Pünd is not religious, contrasting with Poirot’s Catholicism. There are other parallels and divergences which I’ll leave you to discover, but I think Horowitz does a good job of making a character homage to Poirot which deserves to read and treated in its own right.
Horowitz on Detective Fiction
A key part of this novel is that the very genre of detective fiction is deconstructed and critiqued in a loving way, by a writer who loves the genre. And in particular this deconstruction is not done in an over the top or excessive way, but is allowed to filter through the narrative, particularly in the final third of the novel with Ryeland. For instance the nature and the role of the detective is explored and in some ways is deglamourized, emphasising its loneliness and its tendency to breed a lack of trust in others. The book also examines our fascination and obsession, as readers and TV drama watchers, with crime, murder and mystery – and this is an examination which is a mixture of positives and negatives. I also feel the readers’ relationship with fictional sleuths is also touched upon. Golden age detective fiction as a subgenre also comes under the spotlight and is taken to task. As I’ve already said I enjoyed Horowitz’s golden age styled mystery within the book, as it is really good, yet I think the final third of the novel seeks to challenge or redefine its’ value, as we follow Ryeland’s journey. Yet golden age fans do not despair, this is not a deconstruction of a genre, which is clever but unsatisfying for those of us who still wants a good solution to an intriguing mystery. I think Horowitz allows us to have our cake and eat it. At the very beginning of the novel Ryeland says:
‘As far as I’m concerned, you can’t beat a good whodunit: the twists and turns, the clues and the red herrings and then, finally, the satisfaction of having everything explained to you in a way that makes you kick yourself because you hadn’t seen it from the start. That was what I was expecting when I began. But Magpie Murders wasn’t like that.’
When I read this I did have a moment of panic. But it was unfounded, as Horowitz does actually give us a ‘good whodunit,’ with satisfying ‘twists and turns… clues and… red herrings.’ Yet he also gives us something more than that. Something which makes you reflect on your own passion for reading crime fiction, on how you interact with fictional sleuths and even how you perceive favourite authors. Writers as celebrities is a topic which gets interestingly analysed in the book and the rose tinted spectacles definitely come off, with the grandeur we create around favourite authors being replaced with a potentially disillusioning reality.
So as you’ve probably gathered this was a book I really enjoyed and loved and I definitely want to read other Horowitz novels. His characterisation is well developed, with characters you ought to feel sympathy for losing it through their own unpleasant personalities, and people who initially you’d think dislikeable, are then shown more sympathetically. Horowitz is also very versatile at changing his writing style to embody the narrator who is telling the tale. I think my only significant niggle with the book is that the pacing could have been improved in the final third of the novel, as it was a bit slow at points. Whilst reading Conway’s Magpie Murders you’ve got the editor’s warning in your head and you wonder when the shock will happen, when the fiction will collide with real life. This does not happen for a long time and you do get engrossed separately into the Conway novel. Ryeland’s narrative largely bookends this text and I did initially wonder when reading the book whether this was a good idea. However, having finished the book I can see in retrospect that it was the better way to do it as I think alternating the narratives would have created a very different feel and focus for the story. I think the metafictional elements of the book are done in an expert way and aren’t included for simple comedy gags, though there is an amusing moment where Horowitz interviews Alan Conway. All in all this was an excellent mystery within a mystery and although Horowitz critiques the golden age style, he also maintains it, not only within the Conway novel but also has subtle elements of it working through the Ryeland narrative. This is also a story where I think the author takes on bigger issues including the reading and writing of novels, providing a sidelight into the challenges and dangers of becoming a popular writer.
WHAT FOLLOWS SHOULD ONLY BE READ ONCE YOU’VE READ THE BOOK
Something which interested me about the ending of the book (so yes seriously don’t read this until you’ve read the book) is the consequences of solving Conway’s murder for Ryeland. Not only does she have long term physical injuries, but she also loses her career, pushed out of the publishing world as those in it silently judge her for bringing her famous and well-loved male boss to book. This ejection from the publishing world is good news for her partner, who she leaves with to go to his home country of Crete, helping to run a hotel. This moving away from a career to a more traditional feminine role intrigued me as it parallels changes in her reading taste, as she no longer reads whodunits and now turns to Victorian Literature for escapist literature. For me all of these changes and consequences presented an interesting comment on gender, which I hadn’t been expecting from the book, though of course one should expect surprises when reading this book. I’d be interested to read what other people made of the ending, as it is still something I am reflecting on.