2017 was a year of mysteries for me–I spent some time re-reading old reliables, eagerly awaited the latest volume in some of my favorite series (it was a harsh blow when J.K. Rowling did not announce a release date for the upcoming Cormoran Strike novel–Jo, please, PLEASE release it soon!!!), and gave some new series a shot. But honestly, as much as I needed to read mysteries last year, I struggled in my search for new books. None of them were really scratching my mystery itch. So I was very excited when Anthony Horowitz’ Magpie Murders came out. Horowitz is a prolific mystery writer. He’s written several young adult series, was trusted by the Conan Doyle estate to write some new Sherlock Holmes mysteries, was a screenwriter for Poirot and Midsomer Murders on BBC, and created one of my favorite British mystery series, Foyle’s War. So you see why I was optimistic.
Briefly, the novel is two novels in one, really. The main novel weaves the web of mystery around best selling mystery author, Alan Conway’s 9th and final Atticus Pund mystery, last in part due to his recent death. His editor, Susan Ryeland, receivs the manuscript with the last few chapters missing. As she searches for the chapters, she becomes increasingly convinced that Alan’s death was not as natural as originally believed. Interspersed within the main plot is this last novel, so we as readers work with both Pund and Ryeland as they rush to solve their respective mysteries.
Honestly, I had some mixed feelings about this novel. It’s a very clever conceit, and I was excited to see the execution. The Pund novel-within-the novel is painstakingly traditional–there are shouts of Foyle’s War and Agatha Christie, and Conway’s Pund apes Christie’s Poirot in almost every way. The writing, the characters, and the 1950’s setting are self-conscious and self-consciously British. Everything was just so, almost too so. Everything in this novel felt like a veneer, bloodless and hollow, like the characters were just running through the motions. I never could decide whether I thought this was on purpose or not. It was a solid, British country mystery, but something just felt missing.
The current-day novel surrounding the Pund story is much more relaxed in it’s writing, when Horowitz felt less tied to the traditional style. I really loved how Ryeland, the editor, became the detective. There’s always a thrill in reading mysteries that you, the reader, could become the detective and solve it first, and that literally happens here. I loved the moments when she tried to replicate what she knew of solving big crimes from being Conway’s first reader. The final revelation also had some real tension, and there were a few moments, particularly in that revelation, where had anyone spoken to me on the train, I would have been completely unaware.
However, like the Pund novel, there were things that felt hollow or superficial. Ryeland’s relationship with her long-term boyfriend, Andreas, felt very television stereotypical–he’s a free spirit, she’s more buttoned down, etc., etc. Additionally, her boss felt very one-note and was not nearly fleshed out enough a character for the level of role he played in the narrative. I realize these are not terribly specific or wide-ranging examples, but that’s kind of the problem–it was all fine, but a little generic.
It’s really interesting to read through reviews on Magpie Murders. Some readers loved it, LOVED it, and thought it was perfect. Others viewed it as a complete let-down, simply a lower-level Masterpiece Mystery in book form without much effort put in. And some viewed it as a send up of the British “cosy” mystery, the type of mystery that Horowitz writes for television, and that it should be read with a wink and a nod. I don’t know that any of these capture my feelings. To me it was good, but not great. It was fun, exciting, and dull. Fine. It was fine. Just not what I wanted it to be. But if you are really just looking for something that plays out like your favorite British television mystery and doesn’t require a ton of close attention, it will hit the spot.