Set in a small English town, Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders features all the archetypes that whodunit connoisseurs have come to expect from the genre. There’s a nosy neighbor, a vicar, a small-town doctor, plenty of small-minded townsfolk, a wealthy man of power, and a ridiculously intelligent detective. Horowitz also slips in a few less-conventional elements, like a failed book by his main character about a rich, spoiled, child of a man named Trump, and a hilarious discovery that the vicar and his wife are undercover naturalists who enjoy traipsing around fields in the nude.
Here’s a synopsis: The novel opens with a funeral. A local maid, while cleaning her employer’s home, has apparently tripped on her vacuum cleaner cord and fallen down the stairs and died. Not too long after, her employer is decapitated by a sword from the decorative suit of armor in his entryway. Detective Atticus Pünd is then called to town to solve the murder mystery.
What I must have missed at the beginning of the novel (or maybe I didn’t), is that the Atticus Pünd mystery isn’t actually the main story. Just before Pünd is about to reveal who the killer is (and with about nine hours left on the audiobook), the reader is introduced to a new character — Susan Ryeland. Susan is a whip-smart publisher who is responsible for editing author Alan Conway’s Atticus Pünd franchise. Say what? Maybe the problem with listening to audiobooks is that it’s too easy to tune out important information — like the fact that Magpie Murders isn’t actually a book about Atticus Pünd, but a book about a book about Atticus Pünd.
I’ll be honest, when I made this realization, I was really bummed. I didn’t want a meta-whodunit. I wanted the whodunit that I thought I had set out to read (listen to). I got over it rather quickly, however, considering Horowitz’s masterful telling of the two tales. There is another murder to solve and an entirely new set of clues to consider. Basically, it’s a two-for-one. Bravo, Horowitz. Bravo.
I generally loved the story. Atticus Pünd is believable as a detective, and the narrative gave me warm, fuzzy memories of all the Sherlock Holmes stories that I have always loved. I’ll admit that I have only ever read one Agatha Christie novel, but Magpie Murders is certainly Horowitz’s nod to her artistry.
And yet, despite enjoying the book I did find some of it to be problematic.
Horowitz captures the close-mindedness of his small-town characters quite well — almost too well. Whodunit readers expect to encounter insular thinking from townsfolk, so that’s no surprise. But what concerns me is the narrow-mindedness of the second layer of characters, such as the acquaintances and coworkers of Alan Conway. Alan’s sexuality is brought up by various family members on multiple occasions in an “oh, I don’t really care, but… I actually do really care” sort of way that does nothing for the story other than demonstrating that the characters are somewhat homophobic. And honestly, if Horowitz did something to acknowledge this veiled homophobia, I don’t think I would have an issue with it, but he just leaves those vague references to sit in the story in an unsettling way. It comes off as though Horowitz isn’t entirely comfortable with Alan’s sexuality either, but he likes the dimension that it gives his book, so he makes the point of bringing it up awkwardly in conversation as if to prove that it isn’t normal. It feels weird and the story would be just fine without it.
Beyond the issue of homophobia, I found myself irritated by the reason for Alan’s death. Sure, he wasn’t the kindest man to walk the earth. And yes, he created some enemies throughout his life. But was his anagram of the word cunt really that offensive? His whodunit-loving readers probably weren’t the right audience for that kind of joke — true. But it’s not like he confessed to a murder. I just didn’t find the reasoning behind his murder to be that believable, nor did I feel like it was vulgar enough to destroy the entire franchise.
Another plot point that I found to be troubling was the ending. Once the novel transitioned to Susan’s voice and I realized what kind of story I had gotten myself into, I began to appreciate her as a character. I liked that this inexpert detective was pulling from her years of experience as a publisher and editor of detective mysteries to solve the murder. It gave the novel new dimensions, and it moved the story along in a way that I wouldn’t have expected. I wasn’t very fond of her boyfriend Andreas, though. He never felt trustworthy, and I didn’t find his reasoning for being in the Cloverleaf publishing office to be believable at all. In fact, I actually thought he was the murderer the whole time. Clearly, I was wrong about that.
What is troubling about Andreas’ involvement isn’t that he is a weak character. Rather, it is quite the opposite. Like many before him, Horowitz falls back on the trope of cleanly resolving the calamity at hand with a male rescuer who just happens to be in the right place at the right time — enter, Andreas
Susan, after having done some impressive detective work leading up to a confrontation with the killer, is left to die in a fire. Then, rather than allowing Susan to courageously crawl out of the fire with a few burns, Horowitz sends in Andreas, her male savior. Susan credits him with her rescue and calls him “her knight in shining armor.” After this, everything impressive that Susan has done up until this point dissolves. Her hard-earned career in publishing apparently comes to an end, and she decides to go live with Andreas in Greece (much to her conservative sister’s satisfaction). She notes that she misses publishing, and it seems evident that her new life as the co-owner of a small and only somewhat successful inn doesn’t satisfy her intellectually.
Finally, the book ends on an uneasy note and she reflects on how much she hates Alan for his cunt joke and considers what it would have been like to murder him. I feel like Horowitz is trying to be clever with this ending, but honestly, he just takes away Sarah’s credibility. And, I like Sarah.
So, yes, I enjoyed this book for its unsophisticated complexity and for all of the thrilling clues and mysteries that a well-written whodunit is guaranteed to provide. And although it is riddled with questionable moments, I honestly found myself wishing that I could read more Atticus Pünd mystery novels. Perhaps I’ll just read a few Agatha Christie books. Bring on the tea?