CBR11bingo: Cannonballer Says
Not long ago I announced that I had “discovered” Anthony Horowitz. What I failed to mention is that what first put him on my radar was a review by badkittyuno of the sensational meta-mystery Magpie Murders. At the time, I noted, “This sounds right up my alley!” and yes, indeed, it was. This is the fourth novel by Horowitz that I’ve read, yet somehow he continues to exceed my expectations.
Magpie Murders begins with Susan Ryeland, Head of Fiction at Cloverleaf Books, sitting down to read the latest manuscript from Cloverleaf’s star author, Alan Conway. The novel is titled. . .Magpie Murders. It’s the ninth in a series of mysteries by Conway featuring a German detective by the name of Atticus Pünd, who is just 400 kilometers and an umlaut away from being Hercule Poirot’s twin. Conway’s novel is a classic British mystery, taking place in a town with the too-charming name of Saxby-on-Avon and featuring the usual cast of characters: the Lord of the manor house, his semi-estranged sibling, the vicar, the groundsman, the busy-body, and several other residents with hidden pasts. It’s a ripping tale, and if you enjoy these types of classic mysteries as I do, you’ll be heavily invested by the time you get to the last chapter.
Unfortunately for Susan and for the reader, the last chapter is missing. Susan’s annoyance at the missing pages soon turns to mild desperation when she learns that Alan Conway is dead from an apparent suicide. Conway is Cloverleaf’s most successful author, and the company’s entire business plan is riding on the novel. Although it seems clear that Conway intended this to be the last Pünd mystery, the author having afflicted his detective with a banal but “unarguable” brain tumor, a potential BBC series is in the works that would ensure the publishing house’s survival, even as the curtain falls on the print series. As she hunts for the missing pages, she begins to wonder whether he really killed himself or whether something more sinister happened.
I love so many things about this novel. While both mysteries are compelling and operate independently of each other, Horowitz draws similarities so that at times they almost feel like parallel universes. Yet Horowitz, who is adept at writing in different styles, gives each story its own independent voice. He even includes excerpts from a third, painfully awful novel, the one Conway really wanted published because it was “meaningful.” Titled The Slide, the unpublished novel opens, “Lord Quentin Crump comes slumping down the staircase lording it as he always does over the cooks and maids, the under-butlers and the footmen that exist only in his anfractuous imagination, that have in truth swiped hugger-mugger into the adumbration of family history.”
He invites the reader to think critically about his own genre: in one instance, Susan’s boyfriend says disparagingly of mystery novels, “Eighty thousand words to prove that the butler did it?” In another, Susan herself asks, “Haven’t the public had enough of murder?” to which a television producer replies, “You’re joking. Inspector Morse, Taggart, Lewis, Foyle’s War, Endeavor, A Touch of Frost, Luther, The Inspector Lynley Mysteries, Cracker, Broadchurch, and even bloody Maigret and Wallander–British TV would disappear into a dot on the screen without murder.” Fans of Horowitz will note he slipped one of his own series into that list. Is Horowitz being self-deprecating, not taking himself too seriously? Or does he secretly despise mysteries much like Alan Conway despised Atticus Pünd? Unless I’m being completely hoodwinked, it’s the former. I also don’t think Horowitz is being dismissive of “important” work ala The Slide; he is dismissive of writing that is derivative. Better to be an inventive writer of a genre like mysteries than an imitator of award-winning authors.
Horowitz’s novels are a celebration of the genre. He not only gives the reader clues, but he reminds the reader he’s given them clues. When Susan first realizes that chapters are missing from Magpie Murders, she lists out all the suspects and makes notes about each one, along with the page numbers where clues can be found. It’s as if Horowitz is saying, “Come on, this is fun! You can do this, if you put your mind to it.” I almost think Horowitz would be proud of his readers if they managed to piece everything together.
Rarely do authors wear their love of books on their sleeve the way Horowitz does, which is probably why I enjoy reading him so much. He (as Susan) writes, “You must know the feeling when it’s raining outside and the heating’s on and you lose yourself, utterly, in a book. You read and you read and you feel the pages slipping through your fingers until suddenly there are fewer in your right hand than there are in your left and you want to slow down but you still hurtle on towards a conclusion you can hardly bear to discover.”
Magpie Murders is that kind of novel. I was desperate both to finish and to never finish at the same time. Lucky for me there are still more Horowitz novels left to read.