Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders delivers two mysteries for the price of one. There is a traditional whodunnit set in southern England in 1955. This mystery, called Magpie Murders, is the latest and last book in a best-selling series by Alan Conway. Just as his editor, Susan Ryeland, discovers that her copy of the manuscript is missing its last pages, Conway turns up dead. Susan’s attempts to find those missing pages lead her to suspect that Conway’s death might be murder. I enjoyed Susan turn over all of the clues kicked up in the book-within-a-book and in her own life, trying to separate the signal from the noise. Susan is a reader, a fan of mystery novels, who gets to do something most of us have wondered about: could we solve a mystery ourselves, based on what we’ve learned from our favorite fictional detectives?
Alan Conway is the reason that the small publishing house Susan works for is still afloat. Because he generates so many book sales, Susan and her boss, Charles, tend to cater to his whims and tantrums. Even the people who love Alan can admit that he can be prickly. The people who don’t like him (and there are many) think he’s an asshole. After Susan finds out that Alan’s last manuscript is incomplete and he turns up dead, a suicide note turns up that seems to explain everything. Seems is the operative word here. Little things bother Susan, like strange word choices and the fact that Alan’s diary was full of appointments for the near future. When she asks questions, people lie to her about where they were and what they were doing. Susan’s little grey cells can’t help but begin to churn.
I love having multiple mysteries to solve, but what I enjoyed most about Magpie Murders (the novel, not the novel-inside-a-novel) were all the references to classic mysteries and jokes. This book is full of allusions to Christie, anagrams, people transplanted from Alan’s life dropped into his novels—it’s a lot to parse. If Alan hadn’t been so much of a putz, I might have admired him more for his deeply layered texts. That said, I can understand his troubled relationship with the character and genre that made him famous. Alan wanted to be a Great Author, not a writer of potboilers. The glimpses I got of Alan’s other writing, though, made it clear to me that Alan is weirdly cursed to be only good at writing stories he hates.
Because I was thinking so much about Magpie Murders as I was reading it, I appreciated the opportunity to reflect on why I and other fans of the genre love it so much. At one point, Susan has coffee with the detective who ruled Alan’s death a suicide. This detective has nothing but contempt for classic mysteries. Murders are simple, according to this detective, because no one ever takes the time to plot out elaborate deaths and alibis. And this detective is perfectly right…except when we’re talking about mystery novelists and fans. No wonder he’s irritated by the whole situation.
Magpie Murders requires a patient reader and a reader with a good memory. After a quick prologue, we dive into Alan’s last novel for several chapters before we’re cut off before the thrilling conclusion. (I may have yelled.) Then we get many chapters of Susan investigating before we find out who killed who in both mysteries. (Thankfully, we do get the solutions, otherwise I would have chucked this book right out the window.) Having two solutions, delivered right after two very tricky cases, was very satisfying. The rewards were definitely worth the effort of keeping all that information in my head, even the things that turned out to be red herrings.