Sharman Horwood

Writer and Visual Artist

Magpie murders by Anthony Horowitz

  To be honest, I was barely aware of Anthony Horowitz’s work, but I should have known his name. He was the creator and writer of an excellent television series: Foyle’s War. He also wrote the first few scripts for the Poirot television series, as well as others, like Midsomer Murders. The Young Adult television series, Alex Rider, is based on Horowitz’s novels under the same name. He is also the only writer to be asked by the Ian Fleming estate to finish three James Bond novels. In other words, he is well known and successful in Great Britain.

         His novels are becoming known in North America now, particularly since Magpie Murders (2016) has been produced and shown on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery. The television version has a witty script that recreates the story in a unique way. I prefer the novel, however. Horowitz was very creative with this story. There are “in” references about famous novels, such as authors’ favourite sources of names (a variety of British bird species are used in one book, for instance; in another anagrams of character names were used from other novels; and Charles Dickens sometimes liked to use his neighbours’ names). There is also a discussion on Horowitz’s take regarding the writing, creation, and structure of mystery novels.

         Horowitz obviously had fun writing Magpie Murders. If you haven’t watched the televised version, the basic premise is that Alan Conway, the author of a successful series of novels has written a final novel titled Magpie Murders and then committed suicide. The series Conway wrote is about Atticus Pünd, a detective reminiscent of Christie’s Hercule Poirot: insightful and clever, and not British. Conway’s last manuscript is delivered to his editor in London, Susan Ryeland. She reads it quickly, only to find that the final chapter is missing. Then she learns that Conway is dead. She doesn’t have the name of the murderer, nor why the murders were committed. She doesn’t have the final “reveal” of suspects, motives, and who is actually the real killer.

         Susan has to try to find the missing chapter. Her company is having financial problems. Without that chapter the novel can’t be published, and Conway is her company’s biggest authors, his series the most profitable. She drives to Conway’s home and with the help of his young lover, James, searches for the missing chapters. His computer has been wiped of all reference to the novel; his book of detailed notes is also missing. James shows her the tower where Conway leaped to his death. However, that he would commit suicide strikes her as odd: his appointment book has several appointments scheduled for the following week.

         Susan then approaches Conway’s friends, and his sister, Claire Jenkins, who also doesn’t believe that Alan would have killed himself, at least not without telling her. Claire then writes several pages about her brother, outlining what she knows of his life, almost another narrative in itself.

         Magpie Murders is told in an unusual way. The novel begins with the manuscript arriving at Susan’s office, and her subsequent confusion over the missing final section. She then begins to search for the missing chapters. The book then switches to the Magpie Murders itself so that you read the novel about Sir Magnus Pye’s murder, and Pünd’s investigation into it. You learn everything that happens in the fictional story, as if you’re perched on Pünd’s shoulder as he examines the details surrounding the death of Pye. There is also the accidental death of his housekeeper, Mary Blakiston. As you read, you learn about other pertinent characters, much as you would in an Agatha Christie mystery. In fact, the structure is similar to her novels. Conway uses a variety of references to Christie throughout the story, along with a few to Arthur Conan Doyle, and other famous mystery writers. Conway almost seems to welcome the reader’s recognition of these parodies, too.

         Excerpts from other books are included so that the story is like a Russian doll: a tale within a tale. Pünd is writing one, titled The Landscape of Criminal Investigation. He is hoping that his book will help novice detectives–and scholars–learn about solving crimes. Later, another novelist shares his manuscript with Ryeland–and the readers of Conway’s novel–in order to prove that Conway has filched his story from a writing workshop. Included in the book is an excerpt from one of Conway’s novels that couldn’t be published: The Slide, Conway’s singularly bad attempt at literary fiction.

            Magpie Murders is about books, mystery novels in particular, at times poking fun at the limited but possibly necessary tropes of mystery fiction in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, and at other times reveling in their variety and intelligence. The primary tale of the novel is told by Susan Ryeland, a fictional editor, but she gives several pointers–based on Horowitz’s experience–on how to write a good murder mystery.

         Horowitz himself maintains that as a young boy, he was fat and unfit. He consoled himself with books, and began writing at the age of eight or nine. He has succeeded in becoming a marvelous writer, and a prolific one.

         If you love mysteries, this is the book for you, particularly if you enjoy multi-layered novels. Taken out of context the story seems complicated–and it is–but it is told in an accessible way. Read it on a cold winter’s night as the snow drops outside and then you can get lost among the book’s many layers.