Chief editor Susan Ryeland feels cheated when she realizes that the final chapters of legendary author Alan Conway’s last novel,
Magpie Murders, have gone missing. While leafing through the manuscript, making notes and getting nowhere, Susan calls her boss, Charles, the CEO of Cloverleaf Books. Charles can shed little light on the whereabouts of the lost document that will finally bring to completion Conway’s capturing of the Golden Age of British whodunits, with its country house setting, a complicated murder, a cast of suitably eccentric characters, and a detective who arrives as an outsider. Set in 1946, just after the war, Conway’s
Magpie Murders manages to capture something of the feelings of that time.
Susan decides to play detective, embarking on a search for Conway’s finished manuscript. The investigation is in danger of stalling when Charles receives Conway’s handwritten letter containing some devastating news. The shocking note, sent the day that Alan had handed over the manuscript to Charles at London’s prestigious Ivy Club, becomes a troubling omen of things to come. Susan finds herself caught up in a mystery that seems to have no pattern or shape. As she attempts to retrace Conway’s last moments, her reality is exacerbated by the demands of her boyfriend, Andreas, who wants her to relocate to Crete, and Charles, who plans to retire from Cloverleaf Books and have Susan take over.
The world continues to be enamored by the legacy of Alan Conway and his famous detective Atticus Pund. In
Magpie Murders, Pund investigates the murder of Mary Blackiston in Saxby-on-Avon, a quaint village settled deep in the bucolic county of Somerset. Mary’s death, at first presumed to be an accident (she tripped and fell down the stairs while hoovering), soon becomes an investigation into murder. Together with his assistant, James Frazer, Atticus works hard to try to solve the case though there isn’t much to go on. When he first arrives, he’s confronted by the almost peak English suspicious, stiff-upper-lip attitude of the villagers. According to vicar Reverend Robin Osborne and his wife, Mary “had a finger in every pie” and was well-known to be “a busybody.”
Other suspects move through the narrative: local doctor Emelia Redwing tells Pund that Mary Blackiston did not have it easy; Brent, the gardener at Pye Hall, a crumpled young man in his thirties “with dirt beneath his fingernails and a sullen indifference in his eyes;” Johnny Whitehead, and his wife, Gemma, both recently arrived from London to run the village’s bric-a-brac antique store; and Clarissa Pye. Once happily protected by all the wealth and privilege, Clarissa’s presence almost certainly is a source of embarrassment for her wealthy brother Magnus, who has a terrible reputation in the village.
Deftly nestling a novel within a novel, Horowitz leads us down a garden path that suggests even more murders in picture-perfect English villages. The trail takes us back to Susan’s investigation into Alan Conway’s former colleagues and relatives. Soon they’re all in the thick of it, their interviews only increasing the portent of death that surrounded the author’s final days. Back in Conway’s unfinished story, Atticus scurries around Pye Hall with its stone griffins and the now silent Lodge House, where Robert Blackiston was raised and where the ghost of his dead mother, stretches behind him, perhaps guiding his every move. Beyond the vast grounds of Pye Hall, Atticus focuses on the other side of Dingle Dell, a wooded area in the center of Saxby-on-Avon now slated for the development of a series of modern-style cottages. In the process, Atticus determines that everything regarding Mary Blackiston’s death is connected.
In present-day London, Susan wonders how Atticus has managed to enter her world, before the thought occurs to her that maybe it is “she who had entered his.” From Conway’s country estate, to Saxby-on-Avon’s rustic charm, to the hustle and bustle of London, Horwitz weaves together varying tones, textures and tableaux into one coherent, impressive and multifaceted puzzle. The end result is a complex and multi-layered drama, even if it does resort to the occasional cliché.
Written for the Father Brown and Midsomer Murders crowd, (Horowitz himself has contributed scripts for
Midsomer), Magpie Murders is reassuring and comforting, a sort of hybrid cozy/crime thriller in which the eccentric personalities of Atticus’s pastoral utopia are balanced against the omnipresent corruption of Susan’s cosmopolitan London. Conway’s last words prove to be as indefinable as his fictional hero. Rather than being reduced to a petty, two-dimensional cypher of the harassed modern career woman, reality mirrors fiction when Susan’s attempts to solve the mystery becomes a struggle to forge a new life for herself in the face of a surprisingly deadly opponent.