Other than watching Operation: Stormbreaker when I was younger (apparently it was bad, not that I noticed), I never had any experience with Anthony Horowitz. I knew that he wrote the Alex Rider books, and later learned that he created Foyle’s War (which I haven’t seen) and did episodes of Poirot (ditto). But then he comes out with this book called Magpie Murders and everyone loves it. Now, I was reluctant. As a firm and irrational skeptic about modern attempts at mystery, I held off, but after seeing good things said about his two most recent mystery novels I decided to take the plunge.
The book takes place in the 1950s, in a little village called Saxby-on-Avon. It’s a quiet little town, with the only real excitement recently being the funeral of Mary Blakiston, a servant in the home of local lord Sir Magnus Pye. The village shows up for the funeral, but some are quite fine with her death, as she was an infamous busybody. However, her death was a tragic accident, falling down the stairs in Sir Pye’s locked house. But this is a traditional village mystery, and some are wondering, especially since her son Robert is known for stabbing a man…
These wagging tongues drive his fiancee Joy Sanderling to Atticus Pund, a survivor of the camps who is known as an amateur detective. She wants him to come and disprove the rumors and show that Mary’s death was an accident, but unbeknownst to her Pund is dying and has his own project to complete, and besides he can’t do much if the death really was just an accident. Joy goes away disappointed, but Pund finds himself in Saxby-on-Avon anyway when Sir Pye turns up dead in his home, his head chopped off with a sword…
I actually liked this one. I will say that I felt that Horowitz didn't have (or if he did he didn't show it here) Christie’s gift of being able to quickly give information about setting and characters and still keep things moving. It stood out to me because I just read The Mysterious Affair at Styles right before this, although in that book at least some of that brevity can be put down to Christie’s focus on the plot. Horowitz felt a little blunter about the exposition, but still does a good job at getting into the heads of the various suspects and giving them plausible and interesting reasons to go Highlander on Pye. Horowitz is also good at leading you into assuming you know some upcoming plot twists, only to have it be something else entirely--and I got caught once or twice by it. He does a good job of keeping the mystery complex yet clear. However, there is one huge issue with the book.
The last chapter is missing.
You see, Magpie Murders is also the most recent mystery novel by the eccentric Alan Conway. His agent Susan Ryeland is annoyed at the seeming mistake when she receives the first draft, but that annoyance turns to horror when Conway turns up dead, an apparent suicide. “Apparent” being the key word here, as Conway’s sister thinks that things don’t add up. And before long, she’s convinced Susan as well. But was does the missing chapter of Magpie Murders have to do with it?
Yes, there are two fully-fledged mystery novels in this book, and they’re both pretty good. Susan’s narrative is a little simpler than the Magpie narrative, and I’m not sure if that was intentional on Horowitz’s part or not. The tone is certainly different; the Magpie narrative is more late Golden Age with some more angst than might be expected (with Pund’s terminal illness), but not to the extent you might find in more modern works. The Susan narrative is more “modern” in tone, with Susan struggling personally (with her relationship issues) and as a detective (as no one believes that Conway was murdered and she has no obvious reason for investigating. There’s even a chapter which more or less consists of a police officer angrily complaining about mystery cliches like “the suicide is actually a murder.”) I found some of the Susan narrative to drag a bit because of that, but it was nothing severe. However, both narratives show a love of classic mysteries and both contain some very Christie-style cluing.
The Magpie narrative presents a more satisfying mystery, one with clues and plot twists and some good reveals. There is one part where you have to assume that something exists when you don’t know what it actually contains, but I feel that you can reasonably assume that this exists even if the content is more of a reasoned guess than an actual deduction. That being said, there are also some very good and subtle clues involved that can let you piece together the backstory behind the murder, and the identity of the killer themselves.
The Susan side of the narrative is a little simpler, but once again the clues are there, including a clever one that Horowitz waves in your face, totally convinced that you won’t get it. I didn’t, anyway. I don’t like how Susan solves the whole thing through more or less dumb luck, but again, the clues are there for you to notice and solve it before her. I will say that the suspects feel less developed than they do in the Magpie narrative, with the dead man standing out the most. Again, this is more due to the first-person narrative giving you less chances to get into the characters' heads, but it stood out to me. There was also a poor red herring thrown in that not only doesn’t do a good job of misdirecting, but feels poorly motivated in-story. You can argue that it was justified based on what the person involved knew (which I thought Horowitz was going for when I re-read the explanation), but it still rings a little false to me. However, this narrative also contains a certain clue that not only fits that favorite Christie clue of the overheard or misunderstood conversation, but also resolves it smartly with total fairness. This part of the story also has some interesting things to say about the creative process and how authors react to their creations, which I found interesting.
All in all, I really, really liked this book. I admit that perhaps I was just going into it with lowered expectations since it was a modern mystery, but I enjoyed seeing how everything played out. I somewhat wish that more had been done with the mixing of the two narratives, but in the end you have two well-done mystery novels for the price of one. It sold me on the rest of Horowitz’s mystery stuff, personally. Highly Recommended.
NOTE: Apparently there is version of the book, I'm assuming the hardcover, that contains an "interview" between Horowitz and Conway. I assume this since I've seen it mentioned, but it's not in my paperback copy.