Two for the price of one…
😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
Susan Ryeland, editor for Cloverleaf Books, settles down happily to read the new manuscript from their star author – Magpie Murders by Alan Conway. Susan may not like the author, but she loves his books, a series of Golden Age style mysteries starring Atticus Pund and his sidekick James Fraser. But she will find that on this occasion the mystery extends beyond the book, and murder might have leapt from the pages into real life…
This is a witty, clever take on the vintage mystery, with more than a nod to the Queen of Crime herself, Agatha Christie. It is in fact two books – the one involving Susan and “real” life, and the fictional book involving Atticus Pund and a gruesome murder in the village of Saxby-on-Avon. The format is weird and on the whole successful, and it’s certainly highly original and entertaining. After a quick introduction to Susan, the reader settles down with her to read the fictional book, which is then given in its entirety up to just before the dénouement. I must say it’s a fantastic take on a Christie murder – country house, lots of characters all with secrets and motives, a nicely unpleasant victim so we don’t have to venture into grief territory, some great clues and red herrings, an intriguing detective in the German-born Pund, and a rather charming if intellectually challenged sidekick in James. Like Christie, it gets that perfect balance between dark and light, depth and entertainment. It left me even more baffled than before as to why the Christie estate hadn’t got Horowitz to do the Poirot follow-ons – he’d have made a vastly better job of it than poor Sophie Hannah’s rather dreadful attempt.
The real life mystery is just as good and the links between the two are ingenious – some easier to spot than others. I did spot the giveaway clue in this story as it happened and so worked out the murderer fairly early on, but I was baffled by the mystery in the fictional book. Again in the “real” story there are plenty of suspects, all with good motives to have done away with the victim. (Forgive the vagueness – the plotting in this one is so intricate, and half the fun is in seeing how it works, so I’m trying hard not to give any accidental spoilers.) There are alibis to work out, connections to be made and misdirection galore. Susan is a likeable protagonist, and her love of books means there are endless references to various mystery writers – a treat for any fan of vintage mystery stories, but not at all problematic for anyone who hasn’t read widely in the genre. There are also lots of sly digs at the world of writing, publishing, book awards, etc., which add greatly to the fun. Both mysteries are fairplay, I’d say, and all the red herrings are explained in the end.
My hesitation about the format is a small one. I found that all the time I was reading the story within the story, I was conscious that another story was to come and that made me very aware that the fictional book was fictional. Normally, I can forget the fictional nature of a mystery and treat it as “real” but I found I was more distanced with this one, and I really wanted to know what was going to happen in the real section. Then, when eventually it flips to Susan’s story, I really wanted to get back to find out what happened in the final chapters of the fictional one! I found I wasn’t always totally absorbed in the bit I was reading for thinking about the other storyline. Of course, though this was the teensiest bit annoying, it also shows just how interesting both stories were.
However, when I reached the end and the two parts were each finished off beautifully satisfactorily, my minor discontent evaporated and I could wholeheartedly applaud the skill with which Horowitz had pulled the whole thing off. (Horowitz is one of very few authors who always seems to make me want to give him a standing ovation at the end for the sheer exuberance of his plotting. I imagine he must have had a whiteboard big enough to be seen from space to keep track of all the clues… ) Effectively it’s two books for the price of one – two complete mysteries, linked but separate, with different solutions but each feeding into the other. Again, as with his take on the Holmes mysteries, Horowitz has shown how effectively he can play with these much-loved, established fictional worlds, always affectionately but always with an original twist that prevents them from being mere pastiche. Great stuff, that I’m sure will be enjoyed by any mystery fan. Bravo, Mr Horowitz… encore!
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion.