Crime writer Alan Conway has been a bestselling author for years. Readers live his detective, Atticus Pünd, a celebrated solver of crimes in the sleepy English villages of the 1950s.
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 lies another story: a tale written between the very words on the page, telling of real-life jealousy, greed, ruthless ambition and murder.
The worst thing about my latest Back from the Backlist is that I always knew that Magpie Murders would be a book that I would really enjoy. A literary mystery that centres around the world of writing and publishing, features an author who has created a pastiche of the Golden Age, and contains a novel-within-a-novel – clearly this was always going to tick all my boxes.
I can only assume it has taken me this long to read it (my paperback edition tells me I picked the book up in 2017. Yes, really) because I was worried that the book wouldn’t live up to my expectations. As is usually the case, this fear was unfounded and Magpie Murders proved to be as delightful a read as I had hoped when I bought it.
Describing Magpie Murders is a bit of a challenge because this is one of those novels that has a novel-within-a-novel. For much of the book you will be reading Magpie Murders: An Atticus Pünd Mystery by Alan Conway, which sees consulting detective Atticus Pünd travelling to the sleepy English village of Saxby-on-Avon following the death of, firstly, the housekeeper at Pye Hall and, shortly thereafter, the lord of the manor himself. Book-ending Conway’s novel is the story of Susan Ryland, Conway’s editor at Cloverleaf Books. Susan has been looking forward to reading Magpie Murders and opens it with relish, little realising that the book – and its author – are going to drag her into a mystery that will change her life forever.
Saying any more about the plot would be to spoil Magpie Murders. In order to maximise your enjoyment of the ingenious twists and turns, I’d strongly urge you to go in knowing as little as possible if you’re thinking of picking this one up (do read to the end of this post though – no spoilers, I promise!). Amidst a wry pastiche of the classic English mystery novel are some brilliant cliffhangers and head-scratching puzzles that cleverly subvert your expectations, and the way in which the two plots eventually combine makes for a highly enjoyable twist ending.
I had one or two small reservations about the book in terms of characterisation. Given that there are essentially two plots in Magpie Murders it’s probably not surprising that some of the minor characters end up being little more than pen portraits, especially in Susan’s narrative. There were, however, some characters that I felt could have doubled up – or been dropped altogether – so slight was their part. And, whilst it’s vitally important to have diversity in books – certainly not something that is easy when you’re attempting to pay homage to ‘classic’ crime – Horowitz’s depiction of diverse characters felt more like tokenism than representation to me.
I hasten to add, however, that these are relatively minor niggles. The characters who are fleshed out are a delicious blend of the pleasant, the quirky, the underhand, and the utterly horrid (what’s a good crime novel if there isn’t at least one person who’s deplorable), and the setting – both in sleepy Saxby-on-Avon and in Susan’s literary London – is wonderfully evocative. I raced through the book despite it’s length (a fairly chunky 464 pages) and am now eagerly anticipating the sequel, Moonflower Murders, released later this year.
All in all, Magpie Murders does require a bit of patience to stick with the two plots and glue the whole thing together – I imagine some readers might find the central premise to be a bit too clever for its own good – but for anyone looking for a modern novel that can rival Agatha Christie in terms of fiendish plotting, this is a thoroughly enjoyable read. Fans of classic crime fiction would be missing out on a treat if they failed to pick this one up!
Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz is published by Orion and is available now from all good booksellers.
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, and Berts Books.