Though I mostly read and review horror fiction, every now and then, I decide to go with something that’s not quite horror, but more horror-adjacent. So I heard about this book from 2016 called Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, which is a whodunnit with a twist that was a massive bestseller and turned up on numerous “best of the year” lists back when it came out. Although whodunnits are not my main genre, I do actually love a good one, so I gave this one a whirl, and oh boy, am I glad I did. Magpie Murders was exactly the right balance of old-school, Agatha Christie style mystery nestled snugly inside a modern mystery thriller. A whodunnit turducken, if you will.
The author, Anthony Horowitz, seems as though he’s known pretty equally as a novelist and as a screenwriter for British television. His résumé includes scripts for Midsomer Murders and Agatha Christie’s Poirot, and he was the creator of the ITV series Foyle’s War. He’s also written a couple of Sherlock Holmes novels and a few YA detective books, among many other things. As a matter of fact, he wrote a follow-up to Magpie Murders, the book I’m discussing today, that was published in 2020 (it was called Moonflower Murders, and I really need to get my grubby little mitts on it). I had also heard in 2020 that there was going to be a six-episode adaptation of Magpie Murders for British television, and according to some sources, this series aired in February of 2022, but I haven’t heard anything more about it.
Anyway, as I alluded to earlier, Magpie Murders is essentially a book inside a book, with a classic, 1950s-set fictional murder mystery serving as the Oreo filling and a modern literary murder mystery that parallels it acting as the outer cookie shell. At the beginning of the novel, we’re introduced to a woman named Susan Ryeland, who works as an editor at Cloverleaf Books in London. This publishing house is very small, and their main source of income derives from the wildly successful murder mysteries of an author named Alan Conway. Conway’s books all deal with a fictional German detective by the name of Atticus Pünd.
At the beginning of the book, Susan has received the manuscript of Conway’s latest novel, which is called, of course, Magpie Murders. So after a few pages of establishing who Susan Ryeland is and what the publishing situation is, we essentially spend the next 200 pages or so reading this manuscript. The story within a story deals with the investigator, Atticus Pünd, who is summoned to a small town in Somerset in the 1950s to look into a murder. The first death that occurs in the town isn’t what summons him, though; in that case, an older woman falls down a flight of stairs, and her death is ruled an accident. But some of the townsfolk are convinced that she was murdered, and attempt to bring Pünd to their town to get to the bottom of things. However, he doesn’t actually take their request seriously until another person in the town ends up dead, this time in what is unquestionably a murder.
Also, the writer of this story within a story, Alan Conway, has been wanting to retire the character of Atticus Pünd, so has given him terminal cancer, and has made it clear that Magpie Murders will be the last book featuring him.
So the story within a story unfolds essentially in the same way as a cozy Agatha Christie or Sherlock Holmes novel would. There’s a small town where everyone has secrets and everyone has reasons for wanting the victims dead. There are a multitude of red herrings. That type of thing. The manuscript within the main narrative is loads of fun, because it functions as both a legitimately great old-school murder mystery in itself, and also as an affectionate parody of same.
But then, about 200 pages in, the story within a story abruptly stops, and we’re thrust back into the modern day and back into the perspective of Susan Ryeland, the editor who was introduced at the beginning of the book. What has happened is that this latest manuscript that Alan Conway sent to them was incomplete: it’s a whodunnit with the crucial last chapters containing the solution to the mystery completely missing. Because Alan Conway’s work is basically the only thing keeping this small publishing house afloat, Susan has to embark on her own investigation to discover what happened to the missing chapters, and as the tale goes on, the stakes get much higher, as the author Alan Conway—a cranky, difficult man who no one is really a fan of—eventually turns up dead himself, in a manner that could be accident, suicide…or murder.
This whole book was incredibly entertaining from start to finish. I absolutely loved the way the contemporary, “real-world” mystery paralleled the “fictional” one within its confines, and there were so many clever connections and clues that I’m sure I’m going to need a second read in order to uncover them all. The solution of both mysteries was intensely satisfying, and made sense with everything that had been presented so far, so that even if you didn’t guess the ending, as soon as you heard it, you realized that was the only possible way it could have been solved. Anthony Horowitz was absolutely masterful in constructing the intertwining puzzles in such a way that the answers to both made complete sense and had a great, gratifying resolution.
One thing I will note, not necessarily as a criticism but as a heads-up, is that if you don’t know going in that this novel is structured as a story within a story, you might get frustrated at the abrupt shift the story takes when you reach the end of the fictional manuscript and come back to the modern day. I will admit it was slightly jarring for me too at first, especially because I had gotten so involved in the 1950s whodunnit, but just ride that out and keep going, and you’ll realize what an amazing work of genius this is, how well put together the narratives are, and how seamlessly they interact and bounce off one another.
This book is an easy recommend if you love murder mysteries old and new, and are looking for something that combines the old-fashioned and the modern in a brilliant and enchanting way.