Anthony Horowitz hardly needs to prove his writing chops, but he’s gone ahead and done it anyway. In MAGPIE MURDERS he takes one murder story and wraps it around another, giving us two stories in one. It’s devilishly clever and a wonderful homage to the Great Dame of murder mysteries—Agatha Christie.
The novel opens with a scene dear to any reader’s heart: a rainy day, a cozy apartment, a glass of wine—and a new novel. In this case, the novel is so new it’s not yet published; it’s still in manuscript form. Its author is the well-known (fictional) mystery writer Alan Conway, and the reader, settling in for a good weekend read, is Susan Ryeland, Conway’s editor.
As Ryeland begins to read the manuscript, so begins the novel-within-the-novel. Set in 1955 in a small English Village, residents are preparing to attend the funeral of Mary Blakiston, long-time housekeeper of Pye Hall. She had tripped over an electrical cord and fallen down a set of stairs—a clear-cut case of accidental death. Of course, nothing puts a savvy mystery fan on notice faster than a “clear-cut” cause of death. Magpie, after all, is a typical “cozy mystery” involving a tight-knit circle of characters, any one of whom has motive to murder Mrs. Blakiston.
Another death follows soon after, adding a nasty complication that prompts a visit by famous sleuth Atticus Pünt (think of a Germanic Hercule Poirot). The manuscript moves along swimmingly, until the story ends abruptly: its final chapter is missing. (Expletive, expletive.)
The narrative returns to the framing novel and to editor Susan Ryeland, who’s left hanging and frustrated (as are we) at the lack of a resolution. Making matters worse, on Monday morning news arrives that Alan Conway took his own life over the weekend, which means he’s rather unavailable to solve the mystery or to help Ryeland locate the missing chapter. Right before he died, Conway sent a letter, which is taken as proof of suicide.
Once again, beware of clear-cut cases—which Ryeland, experienced in the ways of mystery novels, knows too well. After all, as Conway’s editor, she’s privy to the workings of the genre. But perhaps that insider knowledge is leading her astray, triggering her suspicions, and making her prone to see what’s not really there. Nevertheless, Ryeland’s curiosity wins out, and off she goes a sleuthing.
Part of what is so clever about Magpie Murders is its self-referential nature: a mystery novel that stands outside itself to critique the mystery novel. Even Ryeland admits to the genre’s utter silliness, conceding that its entertainment purpose has no claim on reality. A police inspector tells her that, in real life, so few murders are committed that homicide detectives end up with time on their hands.
The inspector goes on to complain about what he sees as the public’s fixation—”all these murders on TV.… Every night. Every bloody channel.” He’s investigated real murder, he tells Ryeland, and “when you see someone who’s had a knife in them it makes you sick. Literally sick.” It’s nothing like Agatha Christie, he insists.
But none of that matters to Ryeland. The mystery matters — so let’s just get on with it, shall we?
As can happen with dual time-frame novels, the 1950s of the novel-within-the novel is the more engaging story. Most readers, I fear, will be eager to return to Atticus Pünt and the village of Saxby-on-Avon; the characters are more sharply drawn and the mystery more compelling than the contemporary one involving the dead author and is editor.
Still, skullduggery abounds in both novel and novel-within—a twist or two, some seat-of-your-pants high jinks, and a good deal of fun. As Ryeland herself admits, “You can’t beat a good whodunit: the twists and turns, the clues and red herrings and then, finally, the satisfaction of having everything explained to you.”
Ryeland is so right … and she is especially right about the very whodunit she finds herself in—”you can’t beat” Magpie Murders. Book clubs will also enjoy discussing our culture’s fascination with mysteries and thrillers. Recommended.
A former college English instructor, Molly developed LitLovers after teaching an online literature course several years ago. It was so much fun—even the students loved it—that she decided to take it public. If Molly’s not working on LitLovers, she’s sleeping.