“A bottle of wine. A family-sized packet of Nacho Cheese Flavoured Tortilla Chips and a jar of hot salsa dip. A packet of cigarettes on the side (I know, I know). The rain hammering against the windows. And a book.
What could be lovelier?”
Susan Ryeland, editor and Head of Fiction for Cloverleaf Books, is about to read the manuscript for ‘Magpie Murders’ by Alan Conway, the ninth book in the highly successful Atticus Pünd series of mysteries. As a fan of the books (though not the author) she is expecting an absorbing, enjoyable read before she has to get down to the business of editing. Had She But Known what she was getting herself into…
Magpie Murders is both a book about books and one book wrapped snugly about another book (with a couple of snippets of other books added in to the mix). The manuscript by Alan Conway, which we get to read along with Susan, is a very enjoyable whodunnit with strong (and acknowledged) nods to Agatha Christie. Atticus, the not-entirely-unPoirot-esque series sleuth, is, we learn straight away, dying. He has an inoperable brain tumour that will kill him within months and very likely destroy his mental faculties before this. So, he is initially reluctant to take on a new case, involving slander and a death that may or may not have been accidental. But when another death occurs, this one unmistakably murder, he feels moved to use his last few weeks of lucidity usefully.
It is a pastiche of the golden-age style but very well done and perfectly readable on its own account, with lots of suspicious actions, potential motives, clues and red herrings; a vicar, an anonymous note, a shady past or two; a sinister nursery rhyme, a Lord of the Manor and a Mysterious Stranger – enough to gain a full house, and to spare, in GAD Village Mystery Bingo.
Around this central narrative is the ‘real world’ of Susan Ryeland and the mystery surrounding both the death of Alan Conway and the disappearance of all trace of the last few pages of ‘Magpie Murders’. Investigating, Susan quickly discovers several parallels between Conway’s real life and the book: characters, places and events have been tweaked and coded into the series. There are murkier parallels – did Alan commit suicide because of inoperable cancer, like his detective does at the end? Or was he murdered, like Magnus Pye, the Odious Victim character with whom he seemed to identify?
I enjoyed this book a lot and thought the weaving together of strands from each book was clever, well-done and interesting. There was quite a lot of intertextuality and in-jokes, which is interesting considering Susan’s dislike of Conway’s own fondness for wordplay and in-jokes, but there is a difference here: Conway’s jokes were purely for himself and sometimes – especially in one instance – displayed a certain contempt for the reader, whereas the references in this one are intended to be shared with the audience (unless, of course, there’s a sort of Bible Code embedded within, that spells out ‘You’re all a bunch of suckers’ ). It’s a book which considers how writers, as well as the public, perceive their own work and there is some musing on the role of the detective – as perennial outsider – and on the reasons we read murder mysteries (I’m not wholly convinced by all of the arguments – e.g. detectives actually quite frequently fall in love and the emphasis on ‘murder’ in the reading of mysteries seems to me misplaced. In this particular type of novel, as opposed to some more modern ‘crime novels’ or true crime, the actual murder is surely more of a catalyst for a puzzle, then an inducement to read in itself).
I did have some slight reservations. The motive for the murder didn’t seem convincing enough for me (SPOILER: While it would certainly have not be a popular move for Conway to reveal the anagram behind his detective’s name, I sincerely doubt that many people would boycott their well-loved books as a result. In fact, a few people might even have an interest sparked by the controversy and it would probably become a joke rather than an insult in no time. The BBC, too, would probably get over it).
I also found, after a really gripping three quarters or more, that the ending flagged a little and the reveals of both the inner and outer murderers was not quite as involving as it should have been. And I found it a little disappointing that Susan Ryeland – whose personal journey, aside from the investigation, involved the choice of two very different future paths – was kind of shoved into one of those paths rather than being able to make her own decision.
(SPOILER: It seems a harsh punishment to be half-blinded for the temerity of seeking the truth, stealing away both her career and her enjoyment of books, which had been so much a part of her life. And, ok, she’s found love, but the relationship is unconvincing to me, ending up as a default position with a large element of gratitude, rather than a deliberate choice. It contrasts, perhaps, with Joy Sanderling and Robert Blakiston’s love which was much more evident and sadly doomed. In this context, perhaps it makes sense that Susan feels at the end that she’d rather have been the murderer than the detective, given that opting for the path of Right destroyed her life – this is an unsettling contrast to the ‘everything’s right with the world again’ ending of the traditional whodunit and I’m not sure if I like it or not – which is possibly a good thing).
Any Other Business
I wasn’t wholly a fan of the little ‘interview with Anthony Horowitz’ at the end, which seemed a wink too far, but I did like the opportunity to play spot the murderer one last time (this is the only one that – I think – I got right).
(SPOILER: and I never trusted that dastardly Inspector Renault from the start).