“It’s one thing reading about detectives, quite another trying to be one.”
This brand new novel by Anthony Horowitz is making the rounds amongst the mystery blogging community. Already my buddies Kate at Cross Examining Crime and JJ at The Invisible Event have written about it. It hasn’t even hit America yet, so thank you, Book Depository! I’m not sure I can add much insight to what Kate and JJ have already said, but this is November, the Tuesday Night Bloggers are discussing Mystery and History, and as for the Horowitz novel, well . . . I . . . ate . . . it . . . up!
Magpie Murders is very much an example of meta-fiction, a self-reflexive book that is at once a whodunit and a book about whodunits, and I love that kind of stuff in books and movies. (Sunset Boulevard, anyone?) We’ve seen mystery authors incorporate facsimiles of themselves as characters in their books, and it makes us wonder how much of a glimpse this fictional creation has given us into the actual thoughts and processes of its creator. Is there any doubt that Mrs. Ariadne Oliver reflects, however humorously, the mind of Agatha Christie, from her intense shyness around reporters and fans to her creation of a highly mannered foreign detective who has brought her much success – and whom she comes to despise?
Magpie Murders purports to be the ninth and final entry in the acclaimed Atticus Pünd series of mystery novels. Pünd is a German-Greco refugee, a survivor of the WWII concentration camps, whose understanding of the nature of evil based on his experience provides him with the wisdom to assist the British police with their inquiries and beat them at their game every time. The year is 1955, the place a charming English village called Saxby-on-Avon. The novel opens following the death of a noted citizen, Mary Blakiston, who had served for many years as the housekeeper to Sir Magnus Pye. The hours leading up to her funeral introduce us to a variety of characters, all recognizable to Golden and Silver age mystery readers: Sir Magnus’ household, the dead woman’s rebellious son and his fiancée, the vicar and his wife, the doctor and her artist husband, the fishy couple who run the antiques shop. The characters are charming, and the plot unfolds with the same precision you expect to find in a classic mystery. (I think it was JJ who asked what the heck Sophie Hannah is doing getting hired to re-create the world of Poirot when Horowitz does it so effortlessly. I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment!)
And so we have this lovely classic tale that barrels along to its . . . oh wait! The conclusion isn’t there! Oh my goodness, the final chapter is missing, and we will never find out the solution to Magpie Murders!!!
Which is really cool . . . because the novel is also about Alan Conway, the modern day (fictional) author of the Pünd series, and Susan Ryleland, Conway’s editor, who receives the incomplete manuscript, shares it with us, the readers, and then plunges us into a second murder mystery which she must solve so that she – and we – may return to Saxby-on-Avon and get the resolution we crave. What follows in the modern day narrative, on the surface, is a series of puzzles within puzzles as Susan begins to realize the sick cleverness underlying her client’s imagination, the parallels between his novels and real life, and how deeply her own well-being is tied in with Conway’s life and work.
One of the cleverest things about the book is the stark difference in style between the modern day mystery and the classic pastiche. Conway may be, to say the least, a difficult personality, but, like his creator Horowitz, he is adept at rendering a 1950’s village in the throes of change. I just wrote about two villages in Christie’s works, both dealing with the ramifications of modernization, and Saxby-on-Avon is facing this as well: its beloved Dingle Dell is about to be razed for housing – a circumstance that provides a number of people with motives. Meanwhile, the modern day tale unfolds like so many modern day mysteries do, with an ill-equipped heroine in the middle of romantic complications thrown into a mystery and having to figure out, well, how to figure things out! Consequently, I enjoyed Susan’s story a shade less than the Pünd tale precisely because Horowitz renders both styles so well and I simply don’t enjoy the more rambling, less ordered structure of most modern mysteries.
A typical vicarage, like the one found in Magpie Murders
True, there is some “leakage” between the styles. Since Conway is a modern author penning historical mysteries, he delves a bit more deeply into sexual matters than you would find in an actual mystery of the 1930’s. And while Susan’s investigations are more linear than Pünd’s, and a whole lot messier, there are some classic clues leading to the killer that would fit right at home in an Ellery Queen puzzler. We are even provided with actual evidence in the form of certain documents – like in one of those Dennis Wheatley murder dossiers – that we can examine and whose significance we can hopefully discover if we’re clever enough.
To balance out the exemplary job of conveying the classic mystery style in the novel-within-a-novel, Horowitz provides us with some delicious “meta” moments in the Susan part of the novel dealing with the workings of a classic mystery, from the concept of where an author gets his ideas (and the sly way he uses them) to an understanding of a fictional detective’s significance in the reader’s life:
“In just about every other book I can think of, we’re chasing on the heels of our heroes – the spies, the soldiers, the romantics, the adventurers. But we stand shoulder to shoulder with the detective. From the very start, we have the same aim – and it’s actually a simple one. We want to know what really happened and neither of us in in it for the money.”
When it comes to sleuthing, Susan feels that she has gotten in over her head, but that’s because she doesn’t know what she’s looking for while “fictional” mysteries make it easier on their heroes by providing them with clear-cut clues:
“. . . there’s the handprint in the earth, the dog’s collar in the bedroom, the scrap of paper found in the fireplace, the service revolver in the desk, the typed letter in the handwritten envelope. I might not have any idea what they add up to but at least, as the reader, I know that they must have some significance or why else would they have been mentioned?”
So it’s a bit ironic that, with all the clues presented in the Pünd case, the solution (which I sussed out by recognizing certain classic mystery tropes) comes together largely through conjecture, while the modern day mystery is solved by one of those classic clues you find in every other Christie novel (and yes, I’ll shout it out to the skies, I noticed that one too and solved that crime as well! Oh, the cleverness of me!)
It’s a credit to Horowitz that I wish I could read the other books in the Atticus Pünd collection. We do get some tantalizing glimpses into these other works, and as different cases were discussed, it reminded me of the joy I get talking about Christie or Carr or Queen with other readers who are really “in the know.” My friend Moira said it the other day: how fun it is to discuss these works, solutions and all, with people who deeply admire the skill that goes into creating them. Horowitz has the skill, and he’s clearly a fan of the genre. Here, he has written a valentine to mystery fans everywhere.
One last note: Horowitz is well known, not only as a prolific author, but as a television writer, having created the brilliant Foyle’s War, the endless run of Midsomer Murders, and some of the Poirot episodes for ITV. In true cinematic style, he gives us a wonderful “Easter egg” (like those scenes you find at the end of the credits for most super hero movies) via a final chapter spoofing an interview between authors Anthony Horowitz and Alan Conway. Heed my advice and take your time with this chapter. By the time you get there, you will have come to understand a lot about the workings of Conway’s mind, and there are layers of puzzles within these last few pages that are deeply rewarding. Don’t say I didn’t warn ya!
Next week marks a new month for the Tuesday Night Bloggers and a whole new category: Foreign Mysteries. Just like this month’s topic, we found many interesting ramifications to the next one. Hopefully, you’ll join us, and as always, your participation as a reader or a writer – or both – is most welcome.