Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

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Reviewed by Harriet 

It’s one thing to read about detectives, but quite another trying to be one.  I’ve always loved whodunits – I’ve not just edited them, I’ve read them for pleasure all my life, gorging on them, actually – you must know that feeling, when its 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 hurtle on towards a conclusion you can hardly bear to discover.

So writes Susan Ryeland, long-time publishers’ editor for, among others, the hugely successful crime writer Alan Conway. At the beginning of Magpie Murders she is indulging herself in just the way she describes, having been handed the MS of Alan’s latest novel of that name. And indeed, in this multi-layered novel,  readers soon get the chance to read the Christie-esque book for themselves, and very absorbing it is. Set in a country village in the 1950s, the novel features the great German private detective Atticus Pünt, hero of all nine of Conway’s best sellers. Pünt is in the village to investigate two murders at Pye Hall, the country seat of one of the victims, the unpleasant Sir Magnus Pye, who has been decapitated with a large antique sword, and there’s a satisfyingly large and puzzling cast of suspects. But Susan and the reader are doomed to disappointment, as the MS she is reading comes to a sudden stop with its final chapters missing. 

Susan, aware that the future of the firm depends on the publication of the book,

is determined to discover what has happened to the missing final section, and even more so when it turns out that Conway has been found dead at his stately home, having apparently thrown himself from the top of the tower. A suicide note addressed to Susan’s boss seems to confirm this, but in fact it soon becomes clear that he was murdered. Susan is determined to investigate further but her enquiries take her into deep and dangerous waters and soon she is mistrusting even those people she is closest to.  

So Magpie Murders is a novel within a novel, and in fact there’s even more intertextuality as we also get an extract from Conway’s failed, unpublished, and frankly terrible attempt at a serious novel – he longs to emulate Salman Rushdie, David Mitchell, Ian McEwan – and also the full version of his sister’s posthumous biography. It’s also a novel that undermines and destabilizes the detective genre, as, for instance, when Susan meets a real-life detective inspector who points out that the way murders and their investigation in the real world never take place in the way they are portrayed in fiction.

Then there’s Alan Conway himself. An unpleasant, cynical man, disappointed by his failure to become a highly regarded writer if literary fiction, he has made millions from a series in which he actually despises the supposedly brilliant and infallible detective he has created. Over the years he has been quietly enjoying himself, and laughing at the gullibility of his readers, by inserting all kinds of secret, coded messages into the books. A lover of word games, crosswords, codes and anagrams, he has planned to reveal the final, somewhat devastating secret, in a TV interview scheduled to take place immediately after the publication of what is planned to be his final novel, in which Pünt will die.

So the novel simultanously pays homage to and satirises the Golden Age of crime writing, but it also looks behind the scenes of the world of publishing and shows how much less glamorous it is than it appears in the public imagination. Even Susan, who has worked for Cloverleaf Books for most of her working life, feels distinctly insecure on a more or less daily basis, and the shaky basis on which the firm continues to function is made clear by the desperation felt by both Susan and her boss at the prospect of Conway’s final novel being unpublishable if the remaining section never turns up.

Anthony Horowitz has covered a great deal of ground in his prolific forty years of writing life, but its safe to say he has never done anything like Magpie Murders. It’s ingenious and witty, I enjoyed it tremendously, and I’m sure you will too.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Anthony Horowitz, Magpie Murders (Orion, 2016). 978-1409158363, 464pp., hardback.

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