Review: Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Magpie Murders, parody country crime novel by Anthony Horowitz reviewed by Charles HarrisThe English love the countryside and never more than when there’s a corpse spreadeagled over the lawn.

The country crime sub-genre appeared almost as soon as the detective genre itself. Three years after the first English detective novel, Charles Felix’s The Notting Hill Mystery in 1865, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone laid out the rules for a good country murder that we know and love – rural location, celebrated and eccentric detective, false suspects, final twist.

Since then, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L Sayers and Agatha Christie have added dramatically to the rural body count, not to mention loved TV series from Midsomer Murders to Rosemary and Thyme –  leaving inoffensive if fictional villages piled high with murder victims.

Knife in the back

We even play country murders in the board game Cluedo (itself made into a so-so movie) or interactive country hotel weekends.

Despite an impressive backlist of successful YA novels, Anthony Horowitz decided to set about knifing the country crime genre in the back, sides and front, leaving it lying in a pool of blood with everything but a lead pipe and Professor Plum in the library.

Horowitz is himself no stranger to the grown-up version of the genre. He’s written scripts for Midsomer Murders and Christie’s Piorot, among others. Along with a Sherlock Holmes novel – The House of Silk.

And his love for the form is obvious from the start.

Magpie Murders

Best-selling author Alan Conway has committed suicide on completing the last of his novels featuring the famed Poirot-like Atticus Pünd. Or has he been murdered?

The truth seems to lie in the manuscript he’s left behind.

As his editor, Susan Ryeland, sets out to read this last work, she realises that it’s more than just a story. It reveals a real-life tale of jealousy, greed and ambition.

Pitch perfect tone

We get to read the whole manuscript for ourselves, and it’s a joy, despite running over 200 pages itself. (The whole novel is a hefty 560 pages, but you wouldn’t know it. It zips along at admirable speed).

This isn’t a comic novel – but if you know the genre you’ll laugh at the accuracy of the parody. Horowitz gets the tone pitch perfectly. And he has the skill to wring the best out of all the clichés.

Pünd himself is a great creation. Close to Piorot and Holmes, yet distinctively different. German, rather than Belgian or British, with an intriguing relationship to his homeland.

While in Conway, we have the classic trope of the writer trapped by his own best-known character. A situation Horowitz would have seen only too closely in Conan Doyle’s mixed feelings over Sherlock Holmes.

Playing by the rules

Both the “real” story and the story within the story are engaging and properly puzzling. There are more deaths, unpredictable twists, characters who turn out to be very different from their original appearance would suggest.

But Horowitz always plays by the rules – littering the book with clues, both in the manuscript and in the framing story. Even the missing “The” that you’d expect in the title Magpie Murders, turns out to be a clue.

Endings

If I have any complaints, it’s that the novel does slightly run out of steam at the very end, and has to resort to one rather doubtful plot device to keep the tension up.

And when we learn the truth about what happened, it doesn’t quite have the punch that I feel Horowitz was aiming for. I would have liked more emotional fireworks.

One of the skills I admire in John Le Carré is that he can end the most genre of spy genre novels with a true moment of emotional impact. For all the fun and parody, I could have done with something of that depth of feeling here. If only for a brief moment.

But this is to cavil.

Magpie Murders is a great read. A lovely satire of the genre, a page-turner which will constantly keep you both amused and guessing.

With or without Professor Plum and a length of lead pipe.

Links:

Magpie Murders (2016) 560 pp – on Amazon – UK USA

Anthony Horowitz’s official site

Wilkie Collins and Detective Fiction