There’s nothing like a good whoddunit to get you out of a reading rut. When it comes to mysteries, no one is better than Anthony Horowitz, who is good enough for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate, which gave him permission to write two new Sherlock Holmes novels, namely, House of Silk and Moriarty. I have yet to read House of Silk, but the book that helped me out of my rut was his 2016 novel, Magpie Murders.
A novel with one whoddunit mystery is good, and a novel with two whodunnit mysteries is even better. You’ll get just that with Magpie Murders. The novel starts with an editor reading the latest mystery by writer Alan Conway, called “Magpie Murders.” Alan Conway is the editor’s publishing house’s biggest star, and “Magpie Murders” is the 9th and final novel in the author’s hugely popular mystery series starring the brilliant but eccentric detective, Atticus Pund. Conway’s Atticus Pund novels are set just after WWII and follow the adventures of the German detective and Holocaust survivor, solving mysteries in the British countryside.
(Possibly contains some spoilers – read at your own risk beyond this point)
Just as the novel unfolds, the editor tells readers how Conway’s “Magpie Murders” had totally changed her life. However, before she says exactly how, she shares Conway’s novel “Magpie Murders” in its entirety. The novel, of course, is the first whodunnit mystery. Conway’s “Magpie Murders” opens with the accidental death of the elderly housekeeper of Pye Hall, which is a manor house in the small British village of Saxby-on-Avon. Though Mary Blakiston’s (the housekeeper) death seems like a straightforward incident – she falls down the stairs of the manor while vacuuming, it doesn’t stop the gossipy villagers from accusing Mary’s son, Robert, of being somehow involved in her death, especially after overhearing him wish her dead after a row they had a few days before the accident. To try to dispel the rumors, Robert’s fiancee, Joy, travels to London to seek the help of famous detective, Atticus Pund. Before Joy had arrived at his London office, Pund was having a personal crises of his own. His doctor had just told him that he had a serious brain tumor and had about 2 months to live, 3 months at best. Joy implores Pund to visit Saxby-on-Avon to prove that Robert’s mother had died of an accident, but Pund turns her down, advising her that if ignored, the wagging tongues of the villagers would cease in a few weeks’ time. Disheartened, Joy agrees that Pund is right and returns to her village. Pund puts the matter out of his mind, not wanting to take any new cases and planning to spend his remaining days working on his memoir and setting is affairs in order. However, a few days after Joy’s visit, Pund reads about another incident at Saxby-on-Avon, this time about the gruesome murder of Mary Blakiston’s former employer, Magnus Pye, who was the owner of the manor where she herself had died only a few days earlier. Intrigued in spite of himself, Pund decides that two deaths in the same house in the span of days were too much of a coincidence. With his trusty assistant, James, Pund contacts the local police detective, heads on over to Saxy-on-Avon, and takes it upon himself to try and solve the mystery.
Conway’s novel goes on to introduce the different residents of the village who may or may not have had something to do with the death of Mary Blakiston, the death of Magnus Pye, or both. There’s the Vicar, Robin Osborne and his wife, who, though devout, seem to be hiding some dark secret; the Whiteheads, who had lately moved to the village from London and owned an antique shop; Doctor Redwing, who was good friends with Mary; Brent, the strange and solitary groundskeeper of Pye Hall; Mary’s son, Robert, and his fiancee Joy, whom Pund had already met; Lady Pye, widow of Magnus Pye, their son, Freddy, and Lady Pye’s lover, Jack; and Clarissa Pye, Magnus’ twin who he disinherited after their parents died and left him the whole estate. As Pund talks to each of them, he quickly learns that Mary and Magnus were not much liked in the village and that almost all of the villagers had a motive and something to gain by the deaths, especially Magnus’. The mystery is indeed intriguing and complex, but it is no match for Pund’s brilliant deductive mind. However, just as Pund is about to solve the mystery, Conway’s novel ends abruptly, much to my and the editor’s dismay.
As Conway’s novel ends just before Pund unravels the details of the mystery and identifies the murderer, the editor’s own mystery begins. Frustrated by the missing chapters, the editor, Susan, with the help of her boss, Charles, tries to figure out why Conway had given them an incomplete manuscript. However, before they can contact him, they are shocked by news of his untimely death. Conway’s death is first deemed an accident – he had fallen off the tower of his solitary manor in the countryside, but later identified as a suicide after his publisher, Charles, had received a long letter from him written just before he jumped. Like his character Pund, Conway confesses in his letter that he too was in poor health and would not last long in the world. Susan, frustrated by the missing chapters of the novel and still partly under the spell of Conway’s whodunnit novel, takes it upon herself to visit Conway’s manor to search for the missing chapters of the manuscript, thereby starting mystery #2 of the novel.
As Susan investigates the mystery of the missing chapters – really her only credentials are that she loves murder mystery novels, she discovers a lot of parallels between Conway’s life and the places and characters in his novels. She quickly learns that he based most of his characters on real people he knew, such as his gay lover, his ex-wife, his sister, etc. After talking to several people connected to Conway in hopes of learning the whereabouts of the missing chapters, Susan is convinced that Alan had not committed suicide but was murdered and decides to play detective. Like Pund, she also quickly learns that Alan Conway, like Magnus Pye, was not much liked by the people who knew him and that almost everyone she came across could have easily been guilty of his murder. What was originally a search for a few missing chapters of a manuscript turns into an investigation of a possible murder, revealing some startling truths that Susan is not so sure she wants to learn.
Though set years apart and with very different protagonists, Conway’s and Horowitz’ Magpie Murders are equally complex and intriguing. After first reading about Pund’s post-war English countryside and the mystery surrounding the deaths at Pye Hall, I was as frustrated as Susan to learn about the missing chapters and a bit reluctant to switch to Susan’s investigation of Alan Conway, which is set in the modern world. However, after a few chapters in the present setting, Susan’s investigation and Conway’s death prove to be as interesting, if not more than Pund’s Poirot-esque adventures.
Horowitz’ Magpie Murders not only delivers two very good murder mysteries but also gives readers a glimpse into the workings of the mind of a writer, specifically, his different processes in creating characters, settings, and plot and the love-hate relationship he may develop toward his characters, especially one as beloved as Atticus Pund, trapped into churning out mindless novels loved by all and cementing his reputation and fortune versus writing something that is truly close to his heart, which may disappoint his fans. According to the novel, the same can be said about Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot as well as Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, with both writers wanting nothing more than to be free of their famous characters who are loved by the world but whom they have grown to despise over time. I wonder if JK Rowling, Ian Fleming, or George R.R. Martin feel the same way toward their iconic characters? Horowitz’ Conway, though hugely popular thanks to Atticus Pund, is in truth, arrogant, overbearing, and not much liked by people who really knew him. Perhaps this is another glimpse into the real lives of authors we think we know through the books they write.
In this aspect, Magpie Murders reminds me a bit of Herman Koch’s novel, Dear Mr. M, which I read not long ago. That novel was also about a writer who was not much loved by the real life people he knew. Toward the end of Magpie Murders, Horowitz even gets a little meta, with an excerpt of Horowitz, as himself, interviewing the author Alan Conway. Not surprisingly, Horowitz did not like Conway very much.
Magpie Murders (2016) – Anthony Horowitz
Orion Books; e-book
Personal rating: 3/5