Magpie Murders gives the whole thing away in the first two paragraphs. And by “the whole thing,” I mean “my own reductive interpretation of what the novel’s overarching meaning is.”
If the image isn’t already a bit of a cliche, it’s rapidly becoming one. It seems lifted from advertising targeted at Women of a Certain Age (basically, over 29), selling them the ultimate luxury of just getting to relax for a couple of hours. But it’s still a perfectly concise way of establishing the whodunnit as a guiltless pleasure.
The protagonist and narrator of the book has settled into her apartment on a rainy night, equipped with a bottle of wine, a pack of cigarettes, and a bag of Doritos, ready to read the manuscript for the latest in a line of formulaic murder mysteries. “What could be better?” she asks.
Our hero has every right to be jaded about this book, since she’s edited every book in the series, she’s got a contentious relationship with the author, and she spends her entire life immersed in a publishing industry that categorizes every book as either a trivial entertainment or a life-altering masterwork, with little in between. But she remains a fan. And being intimately aware of all the tricks and gimmicks doesn’t ruin the appeal of them, but adds to their charm and the pleasure of working out their puzzles.
When I was looking for book recommendations a while back, that kind of comfortable, familiar, and engaging reading-for-entertainment was what I was hoping to find, having exhausted all of Agatha Christie’s books (apart from the Miss Marple ones, which I never liked) back in high school. Reviews of Magpie Murders made it sound perfect: a pastiche of Christie and other’s traditional murder mysteries, from the author who created the Midsomer Murders TV series. All embedded in a clever meta-fiction, in which the mystery novel gives clues to solving a larger mystery in the “real world.”
Even the positive reviews of Magpie Murders tend to describe it terms of pastiche or mimicry, and the novel would’ve been a virtuoso achievement even if it had been just that. The book changes voice seamlessly and effortlessly, not just between characters and not just between styles of writing, but between different qualities of writing. Trying to mimic both a pretentious and self-important author and a well-meaning but talentless writer is to me the literary equivalent of an actor doing a character with an accent trying to mimic another character with an accent, all through a ventriloquist dummy. But Horowitz fearlessly adopts different voices for entire passages, on top of including clues and red herrings for multiple murder mysteries, and an additional layer of anagrams, acrostics, puns, and allusions throughout.
And because the book is a murder mystery narrated by a character who edits murder mysteries, Horowitz frequently draws attentions to the book’s gimmicks and puzzles and explains how they work, but somehow, they still work. It’s much like a magician who explains sleight of hand and misdirection to the audience, and then immediately pulls off the trick anyway.
But as impressive as Magpie Murders is just as a smart and confident recreation of traditional murder mysteries, I think there’s an additional layer to it: a recurring assertion that there doesn’t need to be an additional layer to it.
It’s a love letter to mid-century murder mysteries, but it’s also a self-aware defense of them that rarely comes across as self-aware or defensive. Horowitz acknowledges all the tropes and criticisms and limitations of the genre, either directly or indirectly. Then, he asserts that those criticisms are either irrelevant or miss the point entirely, because they underestimate the skill and artistry that goes into writing a good murder mystery and why they’re so beloved by their audiences. They needn’t be life-altering works with profound insight into the human condition, but that doesn’t make them pointless garbage, either.
Part of what impresses me is that it could’ve all gone so horribly. Descriptions of Magpie Murders make it sound like the literary equivalent of the Scream movies: deconstructions of a genre that still work as well-executed and entertaining examples of the genre. As much as I love the Scream movies, they are full of that late-90s self-aware pointlessness, not really saying much about horror movies apart from “we get it.” The only gratuitously self-aware bit in Magpie Murders is the repeated reference to Midsomer Murders, which comes across half as Horowitz’s wink at the reader and half as an acknowledgement that he’s aware of the similarity in the titles but it’s given that title for a reason.
The story-within-a-story gimmick the Scream movies introduced with Stab in the sequels took the self-awareness even further, and it’s the perfect example of something clever from the 90s that now seems insufferable. It’s a defensive crutch, more concerned with letting the audience know that they’re in on the joke than with saying anything meaningful. But I don’t get any sense of condescension in Magpie Murders to the Atticus Pünd half of the story; if anything, the book feels like a love letter to that type of story written by an unapologetic fan.
The examples of “bad” writing in Magpie Murders are used in a subtly but significantly different way. One example of clunky an amateurish writing isn’t mocked, but instead is given some amount of sympathy from our professional editor protagonist, who suggests that writing talent is less of an innate gift and more of a skill. The other passage get a much harsher treatment, because it’s a pretentious and overblown attempt to mimic an “important” writer, written by someone who’s sneeringly dismissive of murder mysteries as trite and pointless. It seems to have little sympathy for the affectations of authors striving to make Great Art. Instead, the entire novel has a recurring theme praising the virtues of well-organized, readable, and accessible fiction.
At the beginning of the book, Ryeland (who seems to be speaking for Horowitz here, at least) acknowledges the life-changing power of books — but she includes Never Let Me Go and Atonement along with the Harry Potter novels, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, and 1984. Some led the reader to a profound insight, some had cultural significance, and some were considered just popular entertainment but still had a huge impact on readers’ lives. It’s a rejection of the idea that the power of a book consists entirely of what a great author embeds within it. It says that the real power of a book is the result of a combination of author, a moment in time, and a reader’s interpretation.
Granted, all of that is itself a reductive interpretation from someone who’s always hated the Art vs Entertainment argument. Several times over the years — too many times — I’ve gotten in arguments with people who use “entertaining” or “a fun read” with a dismissive sneer, and who insist that a work has to be “challenging” to have any merit, and that accessibility is mutually exclusive of importance or significance. I say that art is ultimately communication (even if the idea being communicated is “interpret this for yourself”), and I’ve got little patience for pretense and artifice. So I might be reading too much into this overarching theme of taking the hot air of literary snobs. Even if that’s the case, I think Magpie Murders still stands out as an ingenious and expertly-written example of detective fiction.
Even though I did totally predict the murderer right away. Which leads me into a final couple of observations which are in mild spoiler territory. Please don’t read the rest of this until after you’ve finished Magpie Murders.
First: all the focus on anagrams and acrostics and hidden clues has left me with the nagging feeling that there’s an additional layer to the book that I’ve missed and am too dense to pick up on. I purposefully read without trying too hard to solve the puzzle in advance, and I definitely don’t have the patience to go back and look for more anagrams or common themes in the names of characters. But I can’t shake the feeling that there’s more to be found in “New Game+” mode.
Second: I loved that the elaborate years-long puzzle throughout the series of books was revealed not as a momentous stroke of genius, but a vulgar prank by a snob who died unsatisfied because he was never able to appreciate his actual talent. It rises above the whole argument and leaves literary snobs to their own insecure futility.
Third: There seem to be a couple of threads that were left hanging; I’m fine with them being red herrings, but I wish there were a definitive resolution to them. And if there was a definitive resolution, I was too dense to pick up on it. Is there more to Andreas’s past at the school? What was in the photos that were mentioned and dismissed by the “real” vicar’s wife? Is there any significance to the fact that Conway created pseudonyms for so many characters but left the name Jack Dartford unchanged? What about the mentions of pedophilia that never get a follow-up? Is there an additional significance to the final paragraph, or is it just a metaphor? In the beginning of the book, Ryeland says that real life doesn’t offer all the tidy endings that fiction does, but this is also a book in which the villain sits quietly while the protagonist explains the whole sequence of events, so….
Fourth: I’m happy with my interpretation of the book as being a celebration and defense of reading murder mysteries gleefully and unapologetically without being concerned about their literary merit. But I also appreciate that the last paragraph adds “…in moderation.” Horowitz seems to suggest that he doesn’t want Ryeland getting so wrapped up in fiction that she neglects to live her life. Ultimately, he seems to acknowledge the value of a great book but treats the publishing industry as shallow and self-important.