Book Review: Anthony Horowitz’s ‘Magpie Murders’ (October 2017)

Susan Pierotti reviews this detective novel set in the publishing world, in which an editor is the star.

Editors are similar to detectives. We search the text (or evidence) for anomalies and errors in order to sort out the gold from the dross. Personally, I relish a good detective yarn so I was delighted to come across Magpie Murders, where the problem-solving protagonist is an editor whose first name, coincidentally, happens to be my own!

The story begins thus: Alan Conway is a writer of detective novels. His fictional detective, Atticus Pünd, cast in the same mould as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, is approached by a young woman whose fiancé is accused of killing his mother. Pünd ignores her plea for help until the mother’s employer, the local lord of the manor, is decapitated with a sword in his home. Both victims had made copious enemies in the small village they lived in and, as usual, everyone is a suspect. Pünd announces that he has solved the case of the mother’s murder and there the book ends. But not quite: the last chapter is missing.

The real author, Anthony Horowitz, has written an insightful book about the inner sanctum of publishing in the twentieth century, and a witty parody of 1950s English detective fiction – poking gentle fun several times at his own creation, TV’s Midsomer Murders. Agatha Christie’s grandson makes a brief appearance and male detectives, such as Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey and Bulldog Drummond, are also worthy of mention.

Magpie Murders is a book within a book that opens with Conway’s editor, Susan Ryeland, receiving the manuscript without the missing pages. It changes her life. Suddenly, Conway unexpectedly dies, leaving the unfinished manuscript that reveals striking parallels with his own life. Then his suicide letter to his publisher also seems a little odd. The publishing house that employs Susan desperately needs to publish Conway’s final – finished – book, so she sets out to find the missing pages.

As Susan interviews those connected with Conway who could give her a clue, she notices that their stories don’t add up. Was Conway a sensitive boy with a violent father, a blackmailer, a thief, a bully, straight or gay? The voice of the suicide note is wrong – is it, in fact, a suicide note at all? All of Conway’s characters seem to be theme-named, after rivers or fountain pens. Why? And why is his non-detective work so laboured and dull, so unlike his Pünd series of books?

Refreshingly free of the gory forensic dissections and gratuitous violence that prevails in current detective fiction, Magpie Murder’s editor solves the Conway conundrum and finds the missing pages by analysing anagrams, word puzzles, font and format. Horowitz reveals a sympathetic understanding of the constraints in today’s publishing world and the fervour of all editors to arrive at a better, truer narrative.

If you like a rattling good detective tale, I can highly recommend Magpie Murders.

Magpie Murders: a novel, Anthony Horowitz, HarperCollins, 2017

Susan Pierotti
Communication subcommittee