If you remember, I learned about this whodunnit by Anthony Horowitz via a Radio Times interview. At a literary festival, Horowitz had been asked if naturism had been a theme in the book, to which the author said, ‘Yes’. Well, naturally I had to read it after that.
Horowitz has form of course. Having written episodes of Poirot and Miss Marple, as well as Midsomer Murders in addition to his own Alex Rider series for young adults, and Conan Doyle and Ian Fleming pastiches. So a wide and varied CV in the murder, mystery, suspense genre.
A member of the Crow family, along with Ravens and Rooks, to some Magpies are sinister birds and hunt for its partner whenever they see a solitary bird among the trees. Perhaps the reason for this is the old poem:
One for sorrow,
Two for Joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for Silver,
Six for Gold,
Seven for a secret never to be told.
But just like the old adage I am apt to say: “red sky at night, shepherd’s delight; red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning” predicting a sunny day or a wet one, it doesn’t always hold true. Still, it’s a good place to hang a tale.
Magpie Murders is a novel set within a novel, with one part being played out today, while the other is set in crime fiction’s ‘Golden-era’. In the modern story, author Alan Conway has presented the manuscript for his latest Atticus Püch novel, but annoyingly the last chapters, giving the big reveal are missing. Then comes the devastating news; Alan Conway is dead. A letter received by his publisher reveals it to be suicide, with Conway preferring to meet death on his terms rather than letting a terminal illness to takes its course. His editor, Susan Ryeland, never really liked Conway as a person and they had a difficult relationship, even so it was a working one. In order to save the small publisher she worked for the extra cost of commissioning a writer to finish the manuscript, Ryeland travels up to the author’s Norfolk home to find the missing chapters.
In 1955, Atticus Püch looks more liked an accountant than the policeman he once was. German, a jew and holocaust survivor, he settled in Britain after the war and finds fame and fortune as a private investigator able to solve the mysteries New Scotland Yard cannot. After some devastating news of his own, Püch is approached by a young woman asking for his help to stop the vicious rumours flying about the village of Saxby-on-Avon that says her husband-to-be murdered his mother, Mary Blakiston. At first Püch refuses, but when news of the death of Sir Magnus Pye, the village’s lord of the manor, reaches him shortly afterwards, he changes his mind.
It is while Ryeland attempts to find the missing chapters she learns that Conway likes to set his readers little puzzles, or include in-jokes that few people can chuckle over. It is his badness, his scorn for others, his down-right rudeness that makes Ryeland see that for him committing suicide is an inconsistency with the rest of his life. Perhaps she has read too many whodunnits as a fan and editor, but when Conway’s sister insists her brother would not commit suicide without talking to her first, it leads Ryeland into a different kind of search; for his murderer.
The Christie pastiche is deliberate of course, in order to reveal some of the truth behind Horowitz’s fictional author. As I read Püch’s words, I heard the voice of David Suchet as Poirot, while other similarities to the classic whodunnit reveal themselves throughout the book. Mary Blakiston is a highly observant person, who seemingly gets into the right place at the wrong time, and has a notebook full of little mysteries in Saxby-on-Avon (Miss Marple and St Mary Mead?), meanwhile Atticus Püch has a young, not so bright assistant (Captain Hastings?), helping him solve the mystery. In his review for The Guardian, John O’Connell called it a ‘bad parody’ and suggested that if it wasn’t for the present day narrative of Ryeland deconstructing Conway’s manuscript and his character, we could skim read the pastiche. I thought this would have been self-evident, as one story is built upon the other. Besides, in my opinion, skimming through bits of the book you don’t like is the reader showing contempt for the writer.
Magpie Murders is a book of its type and, to be honest, I enjoyed reading it with the words flowing off the page easily. If you enjoy the classic whodunnit then I can’t see you not enjoying this offering by Anthony Horowitz, with its slow reveal in both stories.
By now, you’re probably asking: “Yes, but what about the naturism?” I have just one word in reply to that: spoilers. I will say though, in my opinion it is more a plot device than a theme, as it is only briefly mentioned. I’ll let you find out where and how it appears yourself.