Title: Magpie Murders
Author: Anthony Horowitz
Editor Susan Ryeland sets about reading the draft of her client Alan Conway’s latest mystery novel: Magpie Murders. In it, detective Atticus Pund sets about solving the gruesome murder of Magnus Pye and unlocking the sleepy village’s secrets along the way. When the draft ends right before the murderer is revealed, Susan is annoyed. When she learns Alan Conway is dead, she is shocked. When she suspects murder, she goes about playing detective, for justice—and to finally read the end of his book.
What drew my attention about this book, when I spotted it in the library, was that it contained two mysteries in one. The first is the story of Atticus Pund, an obvious rip-off of Hercule Poirot, in an Agatha Christie type mystery. The second is Susan Ryeland’s search for the lost manuscript. Presumably, you need to read the first mystery to solve the second one. It was ambitious, and I was interested to see if it worked.
Don’t get me wrong, the actual Magpie Murders is terrific. I have a great love of Agatha Christie, and this was a well-crafted homage. The detective, Atticus Pund, is a deeply sympathetic and compassionate man. I also enjoyed the cast of supporting characters. The prose is slow and meandering, but rich and beautiful. It paints a picture of a quaint English village trapped in an older era. While I didn’t find the ending as splendid as Agatha Christie’s, it was nonetheless satisfying.
The second mystery, on the other hand, fell flat with me. This was, partially, in how it was presented. The first mystery (the Agatha Christie homage) cut off abruptly right before the murderer was revealed. At the point, the Susan Ryeland mystery of the lost manuscript begins. It was jarring. I’d hoped the two mysteries might be woven together, but this was more like a turducken--one mystery crammed into another. I have to admit, I couldn’t wait another two hundred pages to learn who the murderer was. I skipped ahead and read the ending, so that I could focus on the Susan Ryeland mystery.
Susan Ryeland’s search for the lost manuscript did draw upon the previous Magpie Murders manuscript, but only shallowly. A lot of time was spent on word games--which were vital to the plot--and showing every Agatha Christie reference and Easter egg.
A problem I had was that the (fictional) author of Magpie Murders, Alan Conway, turned out to be a despicable man who loathed his character and the books that made him so much money. It was meant to mimic the hatred Agatha Christie felt in later years for her detective. But I didn’t buy it. Atticus Pund was too lovingly crafted, as was the world he occupied. It seemed to me the actual author, Alan Horowitz, was having far too much fun mimicking an Agatha Christie mystery and all his delight seeped onto the page.
I did warm to the second mystery, eventually. I enjoyed several of the characters, including the author’s sister and wife, who tried to give insight into the psyche of this odious man. Alan Conway wanted to write something meaningful--instead he sold his soul to write genre fiction. As someone who writes genre fiction (fantasy), I personally protest this persistent notion that mysteries are less meaningful than literature. But I do appreciate exploring the struggle between art and commerce. (See: Velvet Buzzsaw)
However, once the killer was revealed, the whole thing fell apart. Without going into spoilers, the motivation behind the murder made no sense at all--there were so many better, easier alternatives. Moreover, the way of hiding the murder was terrible. Although the death had all the hallmarks of an accident, the murderer decided to go with suicide. This fatal decision is what gets the murderer caught.
Overall, I appreciate the ambition, and I love the Atticus Pund whodunit. If you like Agatha Christie murders, you may want to check it out. And if the second mystery doesn’t quite hold up--well, you still have the first one. That’s what’s great about a two for one deal.
Writer. Critic. Dreamer.