Magpie Murders, by Anthony Horowitz, offers up a premise that’s almost sure to pique the interest of most lovers of classic mystery novels.
It’s a very Agatha Christie-esque mystery wrapped up in another mystery involving the publication of that manuscript. It’s an especially compelling setup for a mystery novel, since two mysteries means double the intrigue, and the prospect of seeing how the two novels will converge amps up the suspense.
In this nested story, the interior mystery is a traditional mystery modeled after classic Agatha Christie novels. Atticus Pund, a famous detective, is called into a small English village on the behest of a woman whose fiance is a suspect in a murder. And, as is customary in these types of stories, Pund quickly discovers upon arriving at the small village that nearly everyone is a suspect. With his assistant by his side and with the help of the detective assigned to the case, he sets about unraveling the mystery.
This story, of course, is actually an unpublished manuscript written by a well-known mystery author, Arthur Conway. Conway is prickly and difficult, but that’s the least of the concerns from his editor, Susan Ryeland, because Conway ends up being found dead, having fallen — or perhaps having been pushed? — to his death before she finds out how his manuscript even ends. Susan Ryeland, then, sets off to investigate the death of her most popular author.
I have to give credit to Magpie Murders for trying to do something new in a genre that’s known for pumping out nearly indistinguishable novels. I’m glad I gave it a shot. That said, I hate to admit that it’s because of this premise that the book ultimately falls apart.
Anthony Horowitz takes his book-within-a-book conceit quite seriously. Both stories are fully fleshed-out with full casts of characters and sets of suspects, etc. It makes the book rather lengthy, but that’s not an issue, since there’s plenty going on to sustain your interest.
Instead, the problem occurs when you realize as you are nearing the end that you might not get the payoff you were expecting. The whole point of a book-within-a-book should be to see how the two stories converge or relate to one another. Otherwise, what’s the point? But in Magpie Murders, if you separated it out into two books, you actually wouldn’t lose much. And one of those two books is a lot weaker than the other.
Book Review: Interior Novel
To be clear, I really liked the interior Agatha Christie-esque storyline. It is well done in a lot of ways. The mystery, when it’s revealed, is set up nicely and there is a good payoff. The characters are well-developed, interesting and feel authentic. I didn’t love how some of the red herrings unraveled (some things a little too unplausible or coincidental), but the main mystery is solid and it resolves elegantly — in the way that makes you feel like this mystery was worth your time.
But, this actually contrast sharply with the exterior novel — so much so that I honestly wondered what had happened. Was the exterior novel grafted in afterwards? I was and am genuinely still confused about this.
Book Review: Exterior Novel
Without giving anything away, the book pushes hard at the idea that solving one mystery will help to shed new light on the interior mystery, but in the end, it only does so in an extremely superficial way. It’s hard to explain without revealing the ending (which I definitely would not do in a book review for a mystery novel), but suffice to say that the connections between the two stories are just very disappointing. It’s not that the two stories don’t relate to each other, it’s that it’s not done in a clever or compelling way. And it’s definitely not clever in the way that you’d expect in a mystery novel, especially one that’s supposed to be written by someone who loves hiding clues and puzzles within the text.
What ultimately sealed the fate of this book for me was that the biggest “reveal” of the novel falls flat. There’s no way I would have figured it out simply because the resolution of the central murder in the novel is uninspired and unbelievable. There’s way, way too much coincidence and the motivations that are revealed to be driving this mystery forward don’t make any sense. And yet, despite the weird motivations and whatnot, it somehow also manages to be somewhat guessable just because it seems like an obvious answer.
Anyway, point is, I don’t know what happened. How was this written by the same person? It looks like Horowitz adapted a number of Poirot novels for television earlier in his career, so it’s entirely possible that it gave him a much stronger understanding of how to plot those type of novels as compared to other types of mysteries.
At one point there’s a quick aside about how quiet English villages make for good mysteries, and I have no doubt it’s something that Horowitz understands very well — he explains that tight-knit communities make it easy for characters to intersect and for natural tension to arise. “It’s a gift to the whodunit writer,” his narrator remarks, but it’s clear who is really speaking here. Ultimately, the realm of Christie is where Horowitz shines.
As you may have concluded, I have pretty mixed feelings about this book. As I was reading it, I was engrossed. The payoff for the inner mystery is solid, smart and well-concocted. The outer mystery, though…sigh. It really is kind of uninspired and quite frankly just kind of a mess. Of course, it’s not until you’re nearing the end that you’ll realize it — oh wait, so none of this comes together? oh wait, so that’s not going to get resolved? oh wait, that’s seriously what was going on?
As a lover of Agatha Christie novels, I’m still glad I read this book, but I wish so much the outer mystery had been more thought out. It seems like such a shame since if that had come together in a more coherent and elegant way, this book would have easily become one of those books that people constantly recommend to each other.
Of course, as it stands, it’s still an entertaining book that many will enjoy. If you love classic mysteries, you will probably still like it enough despite its shortcomings for it to be worth it.
Great review, thanks.
thank you! and thanks for reading!
Very nice review.
I enjoyed your breakdown between the interior and exterior plots. Good review!
Thank you Judi! :)
Excellent review, and this sounds like such a neat idea for a book.
Thank you! And I totally agree, it’s a great premise :)
This book has been on my TBR for ages – it still sounds very interesting to me. I am sure I will read it at some point!
It took me a while to get to it, too! It wasn’t everything I hoped it would be, but I still enjoyed it and I’m glad I got around to it!
Thank you for this thorough and clever review. You’ve set out the positives and negatives of the book really clearly – not easy to do without giving away the (two) plot resolutions. Much appreciated.
Hi Carmel, thank you for the thoughtful message! And thanks for dropping by!
Great review!! And your blog looks stunning!
Thank you very much and thanks for reading! :)
This sounds like a really different, and complicated mystery. Your review was really interesting. 😊
Thank you, Lana, and thanks for dropping by!
I like the style of your blog and the thoroughness of your reviews. That is not good for the author of this novel because I will give it a pass based on your evaluation of the non-connectivity of the two stories. I have had similar experiences with “nested” books and don’t want to repeat them.
Hi Ron, thank you for your thoughts, I appreciate it! I love the concept of nested books, but it’s clearly something that’s difficult to execute well. Still, I applaud authors for trying! Thanks for dropping by!
Christie-esque should be an official word in the dictionary, for all the times I have to correct auto-correct which just wants to change it to dicotheque or something. So glad to see you use this word here as well. Also the book within a book tag. As I read your review I can see how we have both reached almost the same conclusions about the book. But I think your review is extremely well done, much better than my rambling one. I agree, that even with the books quite a few drawbacks, it had me hooked good and proper throughout. Cheers!
Thanks so much for your kind words, I definitely thought your review was well-written as well. It looks like we have similar tastes in books, I’m looking forward to following along your blog! :)
Terrific, thorough review. Thanks for this. I doubt I will take this one on.
Thank you! And thanks for dropping by!
Awesome review. The separate coverage for the interior book and the exterior book was an excellent idea.
Hey, thanks so much! Thanks for dropping by!
Great review. Cool book concept!
I have yet to read any of this author’s books but I really enjoyed the TV series he wrote, Foyle’s War
Oooh, I’ve heard good things about that show, but didn’t know Horowitz wrote for it — will probably check it out at some point, thanks for the rec!
I felt exactly the same way about this novel.
Glad to hear it — thanks for dropping by! It looks like we have similar tastes in books, I’m looking forward to following your blog!
Useful review, thank you!
Thanks for dropping by!
Thanks for your review. Love Agatha Christie and murder mysteries/suspense/All mysteries but open to most genres. I would love to follow you on Goodreads. What’s your link?
Hi and thank you so much! I’m not really active on goodreads tbh but, I’m here if you’d like to follow along anyway: https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/33082780-jennifer — thanks for dropping by!
I’m following you. Asked you to be a friend too.
You have a beautiful site–beautiful and wonderfully done. Thank you for taking a look at Natchez Burning. 865 pages but a great read. (Now I’m resting for a couple of days.) Take care. Bob
Hi Bob, thank you for the kind words — hope you have a good rest!
You reviewed Magpie Murders well. I truly enjoyed the book and reviewed it as well. The premise of the story within the story has always interested me. Horowitz takes us further with that concept.
Thank you very much! Thanks for reading!
I would far rather be able to figure out the mystery, than read one of those, where there’s no way the reader can figure it out, because it’s unbelievable or the author has deliberately withheld vital information. Those tee me off! :]
that’s very true — that drives me nuts as well!
I am intrigued. I like the way you set up your review!