If you’re in the mood for a puzzle mystery, the kind that doesn’t involve excessive violence or the whole noir sense that the world is a mess and all you can do is try to survive in it (not that there’s anything wrong with either of those kinds of mysteries; I read all kinds), but the kind that gives you an intricate setting, numerous clues and red herrings and forces you to try to solve the mystery along with the detective, or if you’re the kind of person who says “They just don’t write ‘em like that anymore,” then you’re going to love Anthony Horowitz’s new book, Magpie Murders, a sort of homage to the golden era of Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle, but twistier and more complex.
Horowitz is no stranger to the golden age of mysteries; in fact, he’s written a couple of Sherlock Holmes books himself, at least one of which (The House of Silk) was so well-written and so true to the characters set up in Doyle’s universe that I believe Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself would have heartily approved of it.
Magpie Murders is actually two mysteries in one (more bang for your buck). The framing story, which is a mystery itself, features Susan Ryland, an editor at a small publishing house, who’s been working with Alan Conway for years. Conway is the author of a series of bestselling Agatha-Christie-like novels starring a detective, Atticus Pund (who’s very like Christie’s famous Hercule Poirot) solving crimes in sleepy English villages. The author is not a particularly nice person, but Susan puts up with his behavior because his books sell so well and the publisher can’t afford to lose the money he brings them.
When she starts reading his latest manuscript, Susan doesn’t expect anything out of the ordinary for him, and at first it does seem like another Pund mystery in an English village. The manuscript is presented in this book, so we are put in Susan’s shoes, reading it with her, seeing the murder and the various suspects and the clues of various sorts. Susan begins to suspect that there’s more going on in this particular manuscript than meets the eye, as if there are things below the surface of a seemingly ordinary private detective story. She gets close to the climax of the manuscript, only to discover that the last couple of chapters (where the detective actually solves the crimes) are missing.
Things go from bad to worse when she goes to meet with the author, Alan Conway, and discovers that he’s dead, possibly a suicide, possibly a murder. Now the details that nagged at Susan while she was reading the manuscript become clues she’s going to pursue in order to find out the truth about Conway’s own death.
It’s not every mystery writer who can interweave two different mysteries in the same novel and keep them both intriguing and suspenseful, but if anyone can, it’s Anthony Horowitz, and Magpie Murders is a twisty, challenging puzzle for real mystery aficionados.