My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Magpie Murders has been lauded for its cleverness. Stephen King (no less) tweeted this of it: “It’s as good as an Agatha Christie. Better, in some ways. Cleverer.” If you’ve heard of it, you’ll probably already know that it’s a book within a book, and as such it is fiendishly difficult to review.
At its heart there is an Agatha Christie style whodunnit set in the 1950s: “Magpie Murders” by the (fictitious) recently deceased crime writer Alan Conway, and the first half of Horowitz’s book gives us the text—minus the final chapter, which we only get later.
Conway’s detective is Atticus Pünd, who is in many respects a cipher for Hercule Poirot, and the setting is classic Poirot territory, the quiet rural village on Saxby-on-Avon. When the busybody of a housekeeper at the manor house dies in a fall down the stairs, Pünd is called in but resists the call, only accepting the case when Sir Magnus Pye, her employer, is later murdered.
Anyone who likes Poirots will probably enjoy this part. In style it reminds me a little of Dead Man’s Folly. There are clues, naturally, but they are by far outweighed by the number of red herrings of which there are plenty. I was taunted by cryptic crosswords and mentions of codes, and when Pünd declares that he knows everything, my attention quickened:
‘Gold!’ Pünd hadn’t spoken for so long that Fraser started, hearing his voice.
‘I’m sorry?’ he asked.
‘The fool’s gold concealed by Sir Magnus Pye. I am convinced that everything revolves around it.’
It does. Just not in the way that I’d hoped. If it had, I would have thoroughly enjoyed this whodunnit.
And so to the second half of Horowitz’s book, which concerns itself with the apparent suicide of Alan Conway, Pünd’s creator. We are no longer in cozy mystery mode anymore. Conway is a nasty piece of work and there are many of his acquaintances who would wish to see him dead. Susan Ryeland, his editor at Cloverleaf Books, is determined to investigate.
Horowitz goes to great length to make this part of the novel as realistic as he can. We get mentions of Agatha Christie Ltd. and Sophie Hannah; indeed, even Agatha Christie’s grandson Mathew Pritchard turns up as a character. We are taken into the mind of an author at work: how they name characters; how they create settings; where their ideas come from; what their bookshelf contains (I’m glad to say mine holds up pretty well). Parallels are drawn between Conway’s book and “real life”; anagrams, acrostics, and similar puzzles all rear their heads again. Plagiarism is discussed, as is the current state of publishing. It’s all fascinating stuff, at least to a writer of the genre. Horowitz dazzles with the sheer number of voices (mostly first-person) with which he tells us this tale.
And yet, for all that, if you want to solve either of these mysteries, I suggest you stick to good old motive, means, and opportunity. But that’s just my humble opinion…what’s yours? Do let me know what you think.
View all my reviews