Today’s read is the highly anticipated sequel to the Magpie Murders (2016), which saw Susan Ryeland’s life turned upside when an author she worked with was murdered. Based on the consequences of that case Susan is now running a hotel in Crete, with her partner Andreas. Yet hotelkeeping on a shoestring is far from easy, and far from the publishing career Susan used to have. Enter Lawrence and Pauline Treherne. They too run a hotel, but in Suffolk, and theirs is the epitome of luxury. So why have they come all this way to see Susan?
They begin to tell her of the grisly murder of Frank Parris, which took place in their hotel in 2008, and which was discovered on the day of their daughter, Cecily’s, wedding. The killer was seemingly caught very quickly; an ex-offender from the hotel staff named Stefan Codrescu. Circumstantial evidence was against him and he eventually confessed to the deed. Robbery was apparently the motive. Back to the present and it seems that 5 days ago Cecily went missing, having taken her dog for a walk and never returned. Before her disappearance she had rung up her parents, who were on holiday. She told them that Alan Conway, (the murdered author of Magpie Murders), had written a detective novel called Atticus Pünd Takes the Case. Conway had been very interested in Parris’ murder and had even gone to the hotel to find out more. The book, however different the plot, includes caricatures of people from the hotel, and more importantly Cecily believes it proves that Stefan was innocent of the murder he is in prison for. The Trehernes think Cecily’s subsequent disappearance is linked to this book, and since Susan was the one who edited it, they want her to re-read the book and investigate the matter in England. Lured by money and the chance to return to her old life Susan packs her bags, but little does she know what is getting into, nor what she is putting on the line…
Mirroring the structure of the story my comments are going to be composed of three sections.
Part 1 – Susan Ryeland on the Case
You often wonder what happens to characters once the final page has been read, especially if it has been a good book, and if you’re lucky you sometimes get to find out. I like how this sequel reminds us that it is not always a problem free happily ever after. Horowitz depicts well the demands of a running a hotel on a budget and the reader is quick to sympathise with Susan when she has customers who come ‘with extortion as part of their holiday plans.’ It is on and by her side that we hear the Treherne’s story and like Susan you are wondering what these well-polished, got-it-together people are hiding. The Trehernes put me in mind of the obnoxious or at the very least snooty rich clients you get in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Though like Holmes, Susan does not pull her punches, and by the end of the case you could say their respectable veneers are smashed, their lives never to be the same again.
The reader is also left to ponder over what consequences there will be for Susan in taking on the case. Is she using the mystery as a means of escaping her problems, or will it bring about a personal metamorphosis? This side of the book is crafted well, so it helps the reader to invest in Susan as a character, yet her personal life does not overwhelm the plot. I equally enjoyed the many crime fiction allusions and references. They were small details, but they made the prose more appealing. We have that famous Sherlockian allusion to the dog that did not bark, (though in this case it did), as well as mentions of specific titles such as John Le Carre’s The Night Manager. I also wondered if Horowitz was making a nod to Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, in his portrayal of the fractured relationship between Cecily and her sister Lisa.
This first narrative runs to around 220 pages and as well as setting up the initial dilemma to be resolved, it sees Susan questioning various people about the same events, and sometimes she even gets people to go over it more than once. Her skills as an editor come to the fore, as like a police investigator she is able to notice the inconsistencies in people’s stories, and the emphasises they place on certain details. I read this story over two days and read this first part on day 1 and I have to be honest I was a bit disappointed. The pace is measured to say the least, in fact it is downright slow at points, followed by a rapid succession of interviews before the section concludes. For me, I think this first part could have been shortened quite a bit. If this was the only part of the book, I would say it was alright, well written, but nothing particularly special. However, I knew there was more to come, so I returned to the book the following day…
Part 2 – Atticus Pünd Takes the Case
The first part ends with Susan about to read the Atticus Pünd novel, and the reader also gets to read this full-length tale too. It is made to feel pleasingly authentic with the Pünd mystery beginning with a proper cover, along with all of the opening pages books normally have. There is even an about the author section which mentions that Sir Kenneth Branagh will be playing Attic Pünd in an upcoming film adaptation; again another nice touch which shows Horowitz knows his audience well.
I don’t wish to say too much about the plot of the Pünd story, but instead I am going to focus on its role within the Moonflower Murders. This story within a story trope is something Horowitz included in Magpie Murders, and successfully as well. It was certainly a drawing point for readers, as Horowitz is very adept at writing homages to golden age detective fiction. The style and tone is just right. Initially, I was a bit low in mood when I picked up this book on day 2. The first part had not quite lived up to expectations, and starting the Pünd section, it felt a little like having begun one jigsaw, only to then be given another one to do instead. It seemed like the reader was having to begin all over again with a new set of characters and plot. However, once Atticus Pünd enters the narrative, I promptly thawed to the tale and found it very entertaining and absorbing in its own right. I particularly enjoyed what Horowitz does with the Miss Lemon-like secretary.
Yet it was always at the back of my mind that I was supposed to be reading it in order to discover what clue Cecily had seen that meant she solved the case. Often when writers have two separate narratives on the go, they alternate between the two, so both plots progress at the same pace, and any parallels to be discovered, are easier to spot. However, Horowitz does not adopt that approach in the Moonflower Murders and instead sandwiches the whole Pünd story 60% of the way through the Susan Ryeland narrative. Each approach has its pros and cons, but I felt Horowitz’s was something of a gamble, and whilst I could appreciate the Pünd novel in its own right and for its own merits, I became less satisfied with its relationship to the Ryeland plot thread. In short, I was not convinced the gamble had fully paid off.
Part 3 – Ryeland and Pünd
Perhaps I went into the book with the wrong expectations. If you expect to read the Atticus Pünd tale and find direct parallels or overt clues to the Parris murder, then you will probably come to the same conclusion as Susan Ryeland initially did:
‘On the face it, Atticus Pund Takes the Case had almost no connection with the events that took place at Branlow Hall in June 2008.’
Her dissection of the book is interesting to read and puts her on a par with the reader in their role of armchair detective. Eventually at the very end of the book Susan is able to point out to the reader the clue Cecily saw, and the other clues Alan Conway included, but I found them rather nit picky and a bit disappointing. It is probably telling that the book as a clue does not factor too heavily in Susan’s explanation of the murder when she gathers all of the suspects in time honoured fashion. I think this disappointment was exacerbated by the fact I had clocked the killer and motive at the close of the first Susan Ryeland section. This reinforced for me how you don’t need to read the Pünd novel in order to solve the murder of Parris. Looking back at the book as a whole, I don’t feel the choice of narrative structure was effective as it could have done. Having really enjoyed Magpie Murders, my expectations were high for this read, and I don’t think it lived up to them. For me the two plot strands of Susan Ryeland’s investigation and Atticus Pünd Takes the Case do not mesh together as well as I had hoped for, and it is that, along with the pacing issues which are reflected in my final rating. Though I feel my final rating also indicates that the Moonflower Murders, did live up to expectations in other quarters, especially when it comes to the characterisation of Susan Ryeland. She is definitely a character you can get behind and I think I would like to see her solve a case with her partner, Andreas, as a sidekick. The pair work well together and would make for an entertaining sleuthing duo.
See also: The Puzzle Doctor has also reviewed this title here.