I was a little stuck as to what to include a picture of here. For starters, as I listened to the audiobook, rather than reading it, I didn’t have the actual book to snap. My next issue was the lack of magpies loitering around my flat. My final problem was that any other prop I could think of (or would be likely to have to hand) would probably give too much away.
And that is the problem I’m facing writing this too. Finally I understand why my mum (endless resource of knowledge and book recommendations that she is) stayed pursed lipped and would only say to expect ‘twist after twist after twist’.*
Horowitz is a prolific and hugely talented writer – as his Wikipedia page will attest – and he is most at home when unravelling a mystery. Magpie Murders allows him to showcase his talent, and his versatility as an author.
Let us start with the official description from Horowitz’s website.
When editor Susan Ryeland is given the tattered manuscript of Alan Conway’s latest novel, she has little idea it will change her life. She’s worked with the revered crime writer for years and his detective, Atticus Pund, is renowned for solving crimes in the sleepy English villages of the 1950s. As Susan knows only too well, vintage crime sells handsomely. It’s just a shame that it means dealing with an author like Alan Conway…
But Conway’s latest tale of murder at Pye Hall is not quite what it seems. Yes, there are dead bodies and a host of intriguing suspects, but hidden in the pages of the manuscript there lies another story: a tale written between the very words on the page, telling of real-life jealousy, greed, ruthless ambition and murder.
This is a book within a book: a mystery within a mystery. On the one hand we have the story of Susan Ryeland and Alan Conway in the modern day, and on the other hand we have a fantastic pastiche of the Golden Age crime novel. Horowitz, writing as Conway, borrows heavily from Christie (Pund is clearly modelled on Poirot) and produces a wonderfully cosy, old school detective novel. Nothing in the world of Saxby-upon-Avon is hurried, the detective has time to piece his thoughts together and you are reassured that Pund will solve the mystery, break it to the villagers and everything will work out in the end. In contrast, in the modern day, the story revolving around Susan Ryeland, is a much more uncertain world. You wonder how she will work out the mystery, if she will do it in time, and how there can possibly be a resolution where everything works out for the best. Pund’s world is much smaller than Ryeland’s – he is focussed in Saxby and, as a reader, you feel confident that everyone he needs to speak to is there. Ryeland, meanwhile, has to travel across England to get her answers, and you’re never quite sure if that final answer will elude her grasp. Needless to say, Horowitz negotiates both worlds extremely well.
Horowitz is never a lazy writer, and takes delight in the fine detail that other authors may skim through. Not only are we treated to a whole novella in the form of Conway’s Magpie Murders, but we also get treated to chapters and segments of Conway’s other books. There are 9 crime novels in the Atticus Pund series and Horowitz has considered them all. They all have titles, character names, plots – which we learn of through Susan. It is impressive, and delightful – and very Horowitzian. It has been years now since I read any of his children’s novels (Stormbreaker, Groosham Grange, Horowitz Horror and the like..), but a characteristic that still stands out to me about them is his love of – for want of a better word – Easter eggs planted throughout the text. Little nuggets of exquisite details which give the reader an added thrill – and make you want to re-read it all to see what else you missed.
What you can really see in this novel is how much Horowitz loves writing. You can tell that he enjoyed putting this novel together and you can equally see how much he enjoys the study of literature – the deconstruction of narrative, story, character, and words. Wordplay is frequent throughout Magpie Murder, and you quickly learn to look at any character/place/chapter/title name carefully to try and figure out what it is a reference to, anagram of, sound-a-like of… He uses his main character, Susan Ryeland, and her skills, to examine Conway’s manuscript closely, looking for clues and trying to decipher the double meaning. Her observations, and knowledge of Conway, give us, as the reader, the clues we need to try and piece together the real mystery in this book. She also helps us realise just how cleverly written the whole thing is.
The only slight negatives I can think to mention with Magpie Murders is that the second half of the book is a little slow to get going, and there were quite a few moments of repetition. Susan explained a couple of things to us one too many times, drawing our attention back to them so that they’re always at the forefront of your mind. I think this is something that is much more noticeable when you’re listing something rather than reading it – I did find myself saying ‘Yes, Yes Susan you’ve said that!’ on a few occasions. It’s just a small niggle – it’s certainly not a big enough annoyance to make me even half think about knocking a star off.
This is a gushing review. I’m not being paid for it, I just really loved the book. I could quite easily write another 1000 words on it – but I will stop now for fear I give away any details of the plot. My only regret is that I listened to it rather than reading it. Not to worry, as soon as I can get my clammy little paws on a hard copy, I’ll be thumbing my way through it, searching for all those clues I missed the first time.
An unequivocal five stars.
*Alas, I don’t own a copy of Twister either, as that might have perked the picture up too.