Magpie Murders is the ninth entry in the internationally-acclaimed Atticus Pünd series by Alan Conway, where Atticus investigates a mysterious series of deaths in the sleepy English village of Saxby-on-Avon. You may find this a bit strange. Perhaps because despite supposedly being "internationally-acclaimed," you've never heard of Atticus Pünd before... or perhaps because the gigantic image above this paragraph says it was actually written by Anthony Horowitz. And there is a very good reason for this!
Magpie Murders is a standalone murder mystery by Anthony Horowitz, and revolves around a manuscript titled Magpie Murders, which is the ninth entry in the fictional Atticus Pünd series by fictional author Alan Conway. The manuscript is not merely an abstract plot device; the first half of the novel comprises (almost) the entire text of Conway's story. In this review, in order to differentiate between Magpie Murders the Horowitz novel and Magpie Murders the Conway script, I will be referring to the Conway manuscript as the "inner story" and the rest of the novel as the "outer story."
It's great. Magpie Murders is at once a homage, master class, shining example, and deconstruction of classic detective fiction. The inner and outer stories are each a murder mystery of a different flavor, so you get two murder mysteries for the price of one. It's smart, clever, and satisfying. I wrote that Moonlight Game felt like a detective novel written by a mystery fan, but Magpie Murders feels like a detective novel written for mystery fans.
The novel begins with a short introduction by the protagonist, Susan Ryeland. She is an editor at Cloverleaf Books, and has edited the massively popular Atticus Pünd series of detective novels by Alan Conway. She has just received a manuscript of Magpie Murders, the newest novel in the series, and plans to read it over the weekend. We then move to the text of the book itself.
The inner story of Magpie Murders takes place mostly in the small English town of Saxby-on-Avon. It begins with the death—or technically, the funeral—of Mary Blakiston, the old housemaid of the richest man in the village, Sir Magnus Pye. Mary had fallen—or been pushed—down the stairs of the Pye mansion. Nobody else was in the house (the Pyes were on vacation) and all entrances had been locked from the inside, so the police rule the death an accident, but the town rumor mill is quick to blame Robert Blakiston, Mary’s son. Robert had had a rocky relationship with his mother, including a very public fight with her the night before her death. Joy Sanderling, Robert’s fiancée, travels to London and beseeches Pünd for help, but he refuses her request. He cannot fight gossip, and if Mary's death was a mere accident then there is nothing more for him to discover.
Soon, however, another death strikes—and this one is unquestionably a murder. Magnus Pye's corpse is found in the same location as Mary's, but without a head; he was decapitated with a sword from a decorative suit of armor in the room. Pünd reads about Magnus's death in the newspaper, and decides to belatedly accept Ms. Sanderling's request.
The story proceeds along the lines one would expect a traditional whodunnit to follow. Pünd journeys to Saxby-on-Avon and meets its inhabitants, all of whom seem to have something to hide. He gathers evidence, listens to testimony, and searches the relevant locales, amassing information that weaves itself into a definite but inscrutable pattern. In true detective fashion, Pünd reveals nothing until the finale, when he has arranged all the clues to clear the darkness and undeniably reveal the culprit as—
This is the point where Susan discovers a minor problem: the manuscript is incomplete. The final section, containing the solution, is missing! She attempts to solve the mystery herself but does not make much progress, and decides to simply get the last chapter from Conway on Monday. But this plan too is foiled when Susan finds out that Alan Conway, the author, has died. He fell to his death from a tower in his suburban mansion, and it appears to be a suicide, since Conway sent a handwritten suicide note to Cloverleaf Books.
Conway's death is a pretty big problem for Cloverleaf Books because he is by far their biggest writer. But Susan puts the company's general business plan on the back burner to deal with the more immediate goal of getting Magpie Murders completed and published. Since it's a detective story, there's basically no way to publish it without finding the ending.
Susan travels to Conway's manor, but does not find the final chapters of the book. In fact, every trace of Magpie Murders seems to have been scrubbed clean from Conway's house. Susan delves further into Conway's life and acquaintances in her search. Initially she is purely concerned with obtaining the end of Magpie Murders, but as her investigation proceeds she begins to doubt that Conway's death was a suicide, and she starts searches for the truth behind Conway's demise as well.
Suffice to say, the truth behind every single "Magpie Murder" is revealed by the end.
When I first started the book, I was a bit surprised at the structure. Magpie Murders involves two parallel murder stories, so I was expecting alternating chapters between the two stories, rather than splitting the novel into two discrete halves. However, I do think this "block" structure works best for a few reasons.
First, there aren't actually that many "parallels" between the two stories, plot-wise. Conway's death has a couple of superficial similarities to Mary Blakiston's, but that's about all there is. If the two stories mirrored each other in some way, it would certainly interesting to see the connected events back-to-back in alternated chapters. But since there are barely any such parallels, alternating the chapters would not add anything, and instead might just make the stories more difficult to follow.
Second, the stories are connected through the characters. Through her investigation, Susan discovers that many of the characters in the inner story were based on people in Conway's life. The book as a whole features a relatively large cast of characters because it is essentially two stories in one. But pairing the characters between the two stories has the practical effect of reducing the cast size. Once you discover an outer story character is based on an inner story character, you can use the information from the inner story to remember and keep the outer story character straight. I think this requires the block structure. If Magpie Murders had an alternating structure, we would need to learn both casts of characters at the same time, which would be quite difficult. But with the block structure, we can fully learn the inner story characters, and then use that knowledge as a shortcut in learning the outer story cast.
Finally, the block structure fits the outer story's plot. Susan isn't a detective; she's an editor. She isn't investigating a murder (at first, at least); she looking for some chapters from a book. She only begins her search when she finds that the book is incomplete, which only happens when she reaches the end of the manuscript. Consequently, putting the end of the manuscript before the start of Susan's investigation is the natural thing to do, and this requires the block structure.
From a literary standpoint, the most interesting element of Magpie Murders is the juxtaposition of the inner and outer stories. While both are detective fiction in a relatively standard mold, Horowitz still writes them in completely different styles. I feel that usually the author's conscious stylistic decisions on how to craft their story can fade into the background as nothing more than an inherent part of the novel, but by presenting these two stories back to back, the differences in style are brought to the forefront.
The inner story is a classic Christie-styled whodunnit. The setting is a sleepy post-war English village, and Pünd is a foreigner just like Poirot. We have a slew of characters, all with something to hide and a motive against the victim(s?). The darkness of a certain tragedy from the past still looms over the village, and some of the relationships are not what they first seem. This story is like an ornate puzzle-box, where every single detail has been carefully placed in order create the desired effect. The clues are scattered consistently throughout the prose, and come together to form long chains of reasoning that lead to the eventual conclusion.
In contrast, the outer story is a much more modern and "realistic" story. It does not take place in a world where great detectives solve mysterious series of deaths; Susan is a mere editor, who happens to get drawn into a single death. The mystery is not crafted to derive from the culmination of a mass of details peppered throughout the story; the killer is essentially exposed from a single line they utter. While the inner story thoroughly scrubs itself of all references to the real world, the outer story mentions plenty of real people and places. There is some profanity in the outer story, but none in the inner story. The outer story eschews most of the tropes of classic detective fiction, and when Susan does try to employ one, it backfires horrendously.
This juxtaposition is part of the reason I described Magpie Murders as a master class in detective fiction in the introduction. Witnessing these two different styles by the same author can help the reader understand the differences and effects of the "classic" style as opposed to the more "realistic" or "modern" style. Of course, even the "realistic" style is still a contrived and wholly unrealistic portrayal of crime, as a certain character makes exceedingly clear in one section.
The other major part of the novel that helps the reader key into the inner workings of detective stories is Susan Ryeland herself. She's an editor. Of (in part) detective fiction. She carefully examines and dissects Conway's manuscript, partially because it's her job and partially to see if any clues for Conway's death are hidden within its words. Delving into the secrets of the inner story's text helps elucidate how an author constructs a murder mystery novel.
I quite enjoyed Susan as a protagonist and narrator. She has extensive knowledge of detective fiction (and especially Agatha Christie), and employs this knowledge in examining both Conway's manuscript and his death. Fans of the genre will definitely enjoy and appreciate Susan's comments and insights which are made through the lens of a mystery aficionado. She is an editor with zero ties to law enforcement, which makes her uncommon among detectives (although perhaps not quite a rarity). I thought this was a great choice of Susan's career on the part of Horowitz, since it makes the detective fiction-related comments natural, and also means that Susan can't simply go around grilling people on their alibi or requesting cell phone GPS tracking data, which would likely ruin the mystery. (This is also why Horowitz had to design Conway's death so that it appeared to be a suicide, to prevent the police from looking into it too deeply and solving it themselves.)
Atticus Pünd, the star of the inner story, is... much less exciting. He has an interesting backstory: he's a Greek-Jewish Holocaust survivor. Pünd is kind, thoughtful, and cautious, which makes him a stand-up guy, but not particularly compelling. There's nothing wrong with a mild detective, as the intrigue lies in the actions of the suspects, not the detective, but all the praise for Conway and Pünd in the outer story feels a bit strange when Pünd isn't anything special.
The mystery of the inner story was decent, in my opinion. I was impressed with how many clues and how much attention to detail Horowitz was able to include within the story, as the facts of the murder seem quite simple and straightforward. A non-insignificant chunk relies on conjecture... But each element of the solution is clued, and it is the details, rather than the base facts, that are filled in by Pünd's imagination, so the inner story does not have the same flaws as Cover Her Face. The solution have also lost some of its impact for me because I listened to the audiobook version and a portion of the answer relies on a physical floor plan. The relevant physical layout is described once in the prose, so I did not fully understand it to the level required to get the solution at the time. I did not feel the solution was unfair, since I knew the relevant details had been given, but I also did not think that part of the solution was satisfying, as I did not fully grasp all the relevant clues. I suspect that the physical copy of the book has a diagram (although I don't know, since I don't have the physical copy), but even if it doesn't, it's much easier to visualize a physical layout when you can read and comprehend the prose at your own pace rather than when you listen to a set recording. Finally, there is one element of the solution that relies upon a certain interpretation of a section of text which I felt was stretching the language slightly too far. But overall the inner story has a comprehensive, extensively clued, meaty solution without any major faults.
(The audiobook version isn't all bad, though. It has a different reader for the inner story than the outer story, which I thought was an awesome detail.)
However, it was the solution of the outer story that I really loved. It's not quite as fleshed out as the solution to the inner story, but that's partially because the outer story is in the "realistic" style. Even if it has less quantity, though, it certainly does not lose in quality. The answer is simple but oh so clever. The answers are lurking right below the surface the entire story, just out of view but always fairly within reach. I think the solution may have felt slightly better if there was more pointing towards the killer than one line of dialogue, but that's a conscious stylistic choice and the solution is still perfectly fair, so I can't really complain.
The element of the book that impressed me the most is the fact that the inner story wasn't necessary for the outer story. Alan Conway's Magpie Murders manuscript does play a central role in the outer story. But I think the outer story could have worked with the manuscript being something that is only mentioned, perhaps with an excerpt or two; the novel as a whole could have functioned even without a full transcript of the manuscript. Therefore, I believe Horowitz's decision to write out an entire second murder mystery shows his commitment to making the experience of his novel as best as it could be. And his commitment paid out in spades, because Magpie Murders is a wonderful, modern book that any fan of the genre will find satisfying.