I was surprised when I heard that Anthony Horowitz was releasing a sequel to Magpie Murders, one of the most delightful books I read in 2019. That mystery-within-a-mystery was clever, well-constructed, and utterly entertaining, but how could Horowitz plausibly make that format work again using the same characters? To my tremendous joy, Horowitz has constructed an equally triumphant (maybe even better?) sequel.
At the start of Moonflower Murders, former publisher Susan Ryeland is living in Crete, trying to succeed in the boutique hotel business along with her Greek boyfriend Andreas. What should be a dream life proves to be an exercise in frustration and disillusionment: guests complain, the internet is spotty, and the couple never get to relax and enjoy the idyllic island they call home. She misses the life she had in London, so when Lawrence and Pauline Treherne arrive in Greece with an unusual proposal, Susan recognizes an opportunity to (temporarily?) escape the rut in which she and Andreas have found themselves.
The story the Trehernes relate is a peculiar one. Eight years ago, an advertising executive from Australia named Frank Parris was murdered in the Trehernes’ hotel, Branlow Hall. The brutal murder (hammer to the face) occurred on the same weekend that the Trehernes’ daughter Cecily got married on the hotel grounds. The culprit, an employee named Stefan Codrescu, was quickly identified, tried, and imprisoned, in spite of Cecily’s doubts. Why did the Trehernes come to Susan with this long-resolved murder? Because shortly after the incident, Alan Conway, Susan’s former client and author of the Atticus Pünd mystery series, visited the hotel and used the murder and Branlow Hall as inspiration for his novel Atticus Pünd Takes the Case. More recently, Cecily called her parents upset, saying she had read Conway’s novel and realized that she had been right all along: Codrescu was innocent. Shortly after that phone call, Cecily disappeared. Desperate to find their daughter and understand what she saw in Atticus Pünd, they offer Susan ten thousand pounds to come to Branlow Hall and help discover whatever secrets Conway’s novel holds.
Much of what I said in my review of Magpie Murders applies here. I’m still delighted by Horowitz’s ability to nestle a charming, Agatha Christie-like tale within the pages of the “current” mystery that Susan is trying to unravel, and how Conway’s voice is so very different from Susan’s. I love that Horowitz continues to poke fun at his own genre, calling out the usual tropes, as when Detective Chief Superintendent Locke rails at Susan over Conway’s portrayal of the police, “What’s the police detective called in Atticus Pünd Takes the Case? Hare? I suppose he’s got that name because he’s hare-brained. He’s a complete idiot, isn’t he? Never gets anything right.” He’s not above taking swipes at British television either which, let’s face it, is also Horowitz’s bread and butter. When Susan meets up with Conway’s former lover James, he tells her that a Pünd television series is in the works: “They’ve got Sir Kenneth Branagh playing Atticus Pünd and I’m executive producer,” he gushes. “I’m not in the first book, but if they make all of them, someone will end up playing me. I’ve suggested Ben Whishaw. What do you think?”
About Conway, Susan notes, “Alan never cheated the reader. I think that was part of his success.” I’ve observed the same about Horowitz. He provides the reader with plenty of clues and even draws attention to them. At one point, Susan receives a long email from Lawrence Treherne detailing the events of the day Frank Parris was murdered. She observes, “I should have spent longer thinking about what I had read. Lawrence’s email contained a great many of the answers to the puzzle. I just hadn’t seen them yet.” I admit that I did go back and re-read that email, and I did uncover some clues, which I think would please the author. While the structure of his novels is complex, the mysteries themselves are less so. I usually figure out at least a couple of points within the solution, which results in me feeling pleased with myself. But then Horowitz keeps unveiling more details. “Aha,” I hear him saying, “So you saw how this piece fits. But did you see this, and this, and this, and this?” Horowitz is a master of the denouement.
If you haven’t read Magpie Murders, I recommend you pick that one up first. While there are no direct spoilers, some of the context within Moonflower Murders provides clues as to what happens in the first novel. And if you haven’t read either, I’m jealous, because you are in for a treat.