Here’s your 2017 beach read. It’s a murder mystery set within a murder mystery, a meta-mystery, if you will, that peers with a gimlet eye at both the process of writing and the publishing industry. This book is great fun to read and stocked full of characters who draw you in and/or repulse you. Both mysteries will keep the reader firmly planted in his/her seat until all whodunnits have been revealed in a most satisfactory way.
The novel opens with Susan Ryeland just home from a business trip and ready to dive into the latest installment of the Atticus Pund detective series. Susan is an editor at Cloverleaf publishing, and she has edited all of the Pund novels. In fact, she “discovered” author Alan Conway back when he was an English teacher at her niece and nephews’ school. The Atticus Pund novels have been enormously successful, earning Conway millions of pounds, an international audience, and even a TV series featuring his detective. Susan respects Conway’s talents as a mystery writer even as she deplores his arrogant and difficult behaviors. He’s a tough one to work with, but Susan knows she’s in for a treat and so she settle in to read the draft over the weekend.
From here, Anthony Horowitz shifts to Alan Conway’s Atticus Pund novel, also called “The Magpie Murders.” This mystery within the mystery takes place in a small English village in 1955. Pund is of German and Greek extraction, a survivor of the Holocaust, and an esteemed investigator. A young woman from the village of Saxby-on-Avon visits his London office to request his assistance in clearing the name of her fiancé in the suspicious death of the young man’s mother. Pund, suffering silently from some grave illness, initially declines, but he changes his mind when another member of the same village — Sir Magnus Pye— is murdered in a most shocking way. Pund and his sidekick James Fraser will spend several days in the village working with Detective Inspector Chubb to figure out what, if any, connection there is between the deaths, and who might have had motives to kill Mrs. Blakiston and Magnus Pye. Turns out, most of the village could have done it since Mrs. Blakiston was the village snoop and Pye was rich and greedy and had plans to raze the beloved local woods for a housing development. Pund’s investigations reveal shocking details of the histories of Blakiston, Pye and their fellow villagers, doled out slowly and tantalizingly throughout the text.
When Susan reaches the end of the novel on Sunday evening, she realizes that the final chapters of “The Magpie Murders,” i.e., those containing the big reveal, are missing. Later that same night she learns that Alan Conway is dead. This shocking piece of news creates several problems. First, without the final chapters, the book cannot be published, and Alan Conway’s Pund novels are Cloverleaf’s bread and butter. Without Conway and Pund, Cloverleaf may not itself survive. But then there is also the matter of the circumstances surrounding Conway’s death. It appears to have been a suicide, but as Susan tries to track down the missing chapters, she has the opportunity to speak with the people who knew Alan Conway: his ex-wife, his spurned lover, his sister, his attorney, and others. Susan learns that many people had a reason to wish him dead, and that he may have left important clues to his own death in his latest Pund mystery.
Anthony Horowitz does a marvelous job writing two mysteries within one, with two different voices (Conway’s Pund and his own Susan) which is not surprising given his past successes with the genre. The Magpie Murders is an homage to the great mystery writers and their beloved detectives — Christie/Poirot, Doyle/Holmes, etc. But it also shows the love/hate relationship that a writer might have with his best known character and that a publisher might have with its most lucrative writer. Horowitz also uses this novel to comment on the popularity and success of mystery/detective writing, providing humorous insight at times. For example, as Susan investigates Conway’s death, she has the chance to speak with a detective from the area where Conway lived and died. He is irritated that Susan considers Conway’s death a murder and goes off on a diatribe:
What people like you don’t seem to understand is that you’ve got more chance of winning the lottery than you have of being murdered. Do you know what the murder rate was last year? Five hundred and ninety-eight people — that’s out of a population of sixty million!
He tells her that the murder rate is actually falling, allowing police to go back to cold cases. Then, when it comes to popular crime shows on TV:
I don’t understand it. All these murders on TV — you’d think people would have better things to do with their time. Every night. Every bloody channel. People have some sort of fixation. And what really annoys me is that it’s nothing like the truth.
Incidentally, Horowitz was screenwriter for TV shows Midsomer Murders and Foyle’s War. Ya gotta appreciate the dig he takes at himself there.
Finally, I would like to add that I really appreciated Horowitz’s character Susan. She’s a smart woman, in her late 40s, who has a job that she loves at Cloverleaf and who is very good at it. While she did not personally care for Alan Conway, she could objectively evaluate his work and even develop some sympathy for the frustrations that he and other writers have experienced in the world of publishing. Susan is also involved with a man in what may or may not be a serious long term relationship, and it’s not a given that she would choose him over her career. I hope Masterpiece Theatre finds room for Susan Ryeland (and Atticus Pund) in its production schedule.
The Magpie Murders makes for a fun read you won’t be able to put down, a good choice for the mystery lovers.