I love the idea of a “book in a book”, and so Magpie Murders was always going to appeal to me. It opens with editor Susan Ryeland, who has recently received the latest manuscript from author Alan Conway, a book called Magpie Murders and the ninth instalment in his bestselling Atticus Pund series. Following two deaths in a sleepy English village, Atticus Pund begins to assist the police as he has done on previous cases.
However, just as Pund declares that he has identified the culprit but before the big reveal, the manuscript ends. Susan’s copy is missing the final chapter.
Frustrated, Susan tries to track down Conway, only to find that he has committed suicide. But something about the death isn’t quite right, and Susan begins to investigate, feeling very much like Pund, albeit a little out of depth.
I found Magpie Murders to be both an intriguing crime thriller as well as a homage to the golden age of detective fiction, and to Agatha Christie in particular. Atticus Pund comes across very much as Germany’s answer to Hercule Poirot, and he solves his cases in a similar way, including the big reveal at the end. No mention of those “little grey cells”, however – he’s certainly not a carbon copy, and he does have quite a different background to Poirot, having survived the concentration camps of the Second World War.
Magpie Murders is a book of two halves – almost literally, according to my Kindle – and the second half of the novel revolves around Susan’s search for the final chapter of the manuscript and her increasing suspicions about the exact circumstances of Conway’s suicide. Whilst the pace, characters and setting change, I did also enjoy this section of the novel, although I have to admit that I was more taken with the manuscript from the first half of the novel – maybe I just have a hankering to read some Poirot… Of course, Susan’s investigation is much more amateur sleuth than the Pund manuscript, and I liked the distinctive change in tone which meant that there was no possibility of confusing the two stories.
In some ways, this is very much a book lovers book, and there many references to other literary works. I have to admit, I do enjoy little things like this, although that’s maybe because it makes me feel clever when I spot them! In particular, I liked the way in which Conway had become tired of his own creation, much like Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle did, and I enjoyed the exploration of why an author might become so fed up with a character they’ve created. Dotting a novel with references to other works can be a little risky however, as it can be frustrating for the reader if they are made to feel stupid for not understanding those references, although it’s never bothered me, and I thought that it was well done here with enough information that you could pick up on the meaning of the reference and its relevance even if you hadn’t read the work it referred to.
Both mysteries – that is, Pund’s investigation into the deaths in the manuscript and Susan’s “real life” investigation – come to a satisfying conclusion, and whilst I felt that the who wasn’t entirely surprising, the why was much more interesting.
This is the first novel I’ve read by Anthony Horowitz, but I found Magpie Murders to be an extremely clever novel. A homage to classic detective fiction, with a bit of a twist that brings it up to date, this is a very enjoyable read.