Two for the price of one. I’ve never read a novel to which that applied more. Or even that old chestnut “a novel of two halves” ….
To serve as an introduction, Susan Ryeland, editor for Cloverleaf Books, tells us about Alan Conway’s latest novel, the 9th Atticus Pünd murder mystery. She hints that it is a novel that dramatically changed her life.Then we are plunged into Alan Conway’s novel, a cosy murder mystery, if you will, a homage to Agatha Christie. Because Atticus Pünd is from the same mould as Poirot. You know, one of those superior beings, who solve everything before we mere mortals have taken a breathe. What saves Pünd from the incessant eye-rolling that Poirot induces in me is, of course, his dark German heritage and the fact that his terminal illness gives him an air of vulnerability.
The Pünd mystery – if I may call it that – is set in the 1950’s. It concerns the death of the unpopular Mary Blakiston, who is found at the bottom of the stairs with a broken neck, and eventually, as is the case in all good murder mysteries, a second more brutal killing. The village is populated by a host of typically Christie suspects (the ex-husband, the vicar, the squire, etc), each with secrets of their own and motives for killing one or both of the dead. Horowitz doesn’t skimp on what is effectively the first of two murder mysteries in the book. He ensures his fictional author pays attention and mixes the necessary ingredients: the clever detective, his less-able side-kick and the reader must negotiate their way through clues and red-herrings aplenty. Horowitz even has Conway constructing his mystery as Christie used to, using the structure of a nursery rhyme: One for sorrow/two for joy/three for a girl/four for a boy/five for silver/six for gold/seven for a secret/never to be told.
And indeed it appears that way, because the seventh and final section of the Conway novel is missing! Recovering it is made more difficult by the fact that Conway commits suicide immediately after delivering the manuscript.
Susan Ryeland is determined to find the final chapter, because it is essential to the survival of Cloverleaf Books. It will become the bestseller that will keep the publishing house afloat. And so begins the second, contemporary mystery, because when she goes down to Conway’s home, there’s a slight whiff of foul play that grows stronger by the minute. Particularly when she begins to uncover the parallels between what has now become Conway’s final novel and the contemporary “reality”.
Was the 9th Atticus Pünd mystery, therefore, a statement of intent or a self-fulfilling prophecy? Or maybe even both?
In the course of her investigation, Ryeland comes to realise how much Conway despised his fictional creation, wealth and fame notwithstanding. (Here Horowitz is drawing on the history of crime fiction and the similar feelings that Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie had for their respective detectives.) And to hammer the point home, Horowitz invents the entire backcatalogue of Atticus Pünd mysteries. Neither is this an embellishing conceit, it is crucial to solving the mystery of Conway’s death and finding that final chapter.
Ryeland also serves a secondary purpose. As editor of a publishing house, she is ideally placed to serve as a literary critic, and her deconstruction of the mystery genre and reasoning on their popularity are as enjoyable as her sleuthing.
Other reviewers have called Magpie Murders (note not The Magpie Murders – it’s important) “fiendishly clever”. I can only agree. Horowitz planned the novel for 5 months and the result is flawless. It’s a brave novel too. Imagine all that effort, only to kill off your detective. No chance of a sequel, then, unless Susan Ryeland has another novel to publish ….