Magpie Murders is an amazingly clever mystery within a mystery by acclaimed author and screenwriter Anthony Horowitz (Midsomer Murders, Foyle's War). The book begins in the present day, with editor Susan Ryeland reading the manuscript of a mystery novel called Magpie Murders, which is the latest installment in a bestselling series by fictional author Alan Conway. Alan is the only bestselling author published by Susan's London publishing house, Cloverleaf Books, which needs to have a hit on its hands to stay viable.
We read the manuscript along with Susan, and almost the entire first half of the book is the novel within a novel: a classic, Agatha Christie-style whodunit set in an English village in the 1950s, featuring Atticus Pünd, a half-German, half-Greek Holocaust survivor, a brilliant detective who, of course, is much more intelligent than anyone else around him. Horowitz is obviously paying homage to Hercule Poirot with this character, who is also a foreign-born detective solving murders in English villages. In Horowitz's fictional present-day world, Atticus Pünd is a beloved character, whose adventures are about to be made into a TV series.
The manuscript of the Atticus Pünd mystery, supposed to be the ninth in the series, is set in the village of Saxby-on-Avon and begins with the death of Mary Blakiston, the housekeeper at the local manor house, Pye Hall. At first her death seems to be an accidental fall down a staircase, but villagers remember an argument between Mary and her son, Robert, where, in anger, he threatened to kill her. People start to suspect that Mary was murdered. As it turns out, she was a busybody who knew everyone's secrets and wrote them all down in a diary. So, as is often the case with the classic mystery, there is a large pool of suspects, all with various motives to kill Mary.
Robert's fiancée calls on Atticus to investigate, in order to clear Robert of suspicion, but he refuses at first. As you find out very early on, Atticus has recently been diagnosed with a brain tumor and does not have much longer to live. He wants to spend his remaining time settling his affairs and finishing his book on criminal investigation. He also has doubts that Mary's death was really murder.
Things change when a second murder occurs: the owner of the manor house, Sir Magnus Pye ("Mag Pye"--many of the characters' names in the manuscript are puns on bird names) is found beheaded with a sword from a suit of armor in his house. Sir Magnus was a nasty, even cruel, man, hated by most people in the village, who are especially angry with him because he threatened to tear down a beautiful woodland near his house in order to make way for a housing development. Many of the people who had motives to kill Mary also had motives to kill Sir Magnus. And so Atticus arrives in the village and questions all the suspects.
At the heart of the mystery is Mary Blakiston's family, and a tragedy that happened in the past when her young son Tom drowned in a lake and her surviving son, Robert, was traumatized and has not been the same since. Mary's husband left her after Tom's death. The two boys had been looking for a treasure Sir Magnus had hidden, and so there is reason to hold Sir Magnus responsible for the boy's death, at least in the minds of the grieving family. Atticus makes this connection and goes to speak to the estranged husband. But is this a clue or a red herring? (And, as is usual with classic mysteries, there are many clues and red herrings, and the reader doesn't know which is which).
Frustratingly, the manuscript is missing its last few chapters and cuts off just when Atticus is about to reveal the solution to the crime. Then we are back in the present day with Susan, the editor, who finds out, shortly after reading the manuscript, that its author, Alan Conway, is dead. At first it seems clear that Alan committed suicide. Like his creation, Atticus Pünd, Alan has recently found out that he has terminal cancer, and does not want to live in pain. He even sends a suicide letter to his publisher, Susan's boss Charles Clover. Susan, with her editor's skills, realizes something is not right about the letter and begins to suspect Alan was murdered. Just like the fictional Sir Magnus Pye, Alan was a very unpleasant person and had many enemies. As Susan looks through Alan's appointment book, she sees he had meetings and activities planned for the week following his "suicide," and never canceled them. And Alan's sister tells Susan her brother would never have committed suicide, even with terminal cancer.
Susan goes to Alan's house to look for the missing pages of the manuscript, but she cannot find them either on his computer or in his desk, as handwritten pages. Alan, as it turns out, wrote everything by hand before typing it into the computer. Susan realized someone deliberately destroyed, or hid, the final chapters of the manuscript because they contained a secret the person did not want revealed. But what was the secret? Alan was known for using thinly-disguised versions of the people he knew as characters in his novels, and Susan realizes that his last novel is no exception. As Susan continues her search, she discovers parallels between the events of the fictional manuscript and the "real" life of its author, Alan Conway.
Meanwhile, Susan has a dilemma to deal with in her career: her boss, Charles Clover, tells her he's retiring and he wants her to take over as head of the struggling publishing house, but at the the same time her Greek boyfriend wants her to marry him and come to Crete to help him run a hotel. Which will she choose? And will Alan's killer make her the next victim before she has a chance to decide?
Horowitz's novel is really a tribute to the mystery genre. At one point, Susan talks about why people love mysteries: because, in an uncertain world, the mystery is one genre which provides a satisfactory solution and the villains are punished in the end. That is why, of course, it is so frustrating for a mystery to go unsolved. Susan also mentions the intellectual challenge of the mystery, and how the reader tries to solve the crime along with the detective, but usually with the detective staying several steps ahead of the reader. The fictional author, Alan Conway, loved to include puzzles and wordplay in his novels. The manuscript Susan reads, Magpie Murders, is based on an old nursery rhyme, just as Agatha Christie often used nursery rhymes in her books.
I am happy to say that the real novel Magpie Murders will not leave you hanging. I will not give it away, but both the "real" and fictional stories come to satisfying conclusions. It is a wonderful treat for all mystery lovers. Horowitz has adapted his own novel into a TV series, which will be shown very soon (starting Oct. 16) on PBS, and I am looking forward to it. I love the part of the novel where Susan talks to the producer of a fictional TV series of the Atticus Pünd novels, who tells her all the frustrations he feels in dealing with the demanding author. Horowitz, as both a novelist and screenwriter, knows both worlds very well. He has also written a sequel, Moonflower Murders. I highly recommend the book, and I am looking forward to the TV series.
Magpie Murders is available from the Hatcher Graduate Library.