I haven’t had much experience with Horowitz’s writing. As a kid I was aware of the hype around Alex Rider but was never interested in it. The only books I did read at a much younger age were Groosham Grange and its sequel. I did like them, and I’ve reread them a few times since. But this was my first attempt at a Horowitz novel catering to older audiences.
It’s difficult to dissect this novel without giving much away, since it’s a mystery, but I’ll do my best. Susan Ryeland has been editing the mystery novels of Alan Conway through the Cloverleaf publishing house since his first (she ‘discovered’ him, as it were); she doesn’t like him much but she likes the novels starring Atticus Pünd – a German WWII concentration camp survivor turned private detective – and when she’s given the manuscript for his latest detective novel set in a small gossip-ridden village, Magpie Murders, she begins to suspect that something very wrong is going on.
Why is it that we have such a need for murder mystery and what is it that attracts us – the crime or the solution? Do we have some primal need of bloodshed because our own lives are so safe, so comfortable?
I didn’t expect the story-within-a-story to take out such a chunk of the book. The cozy mystery that Magpie Murders is occupied with takes up roughly half of the novel itself. At first I was skeptical, but when it comes to crime fiction, I’m very lazy. I can find anything interesting. So I was pretty much hooked a few pages in. Written somewhat in the vein of Agatha Christie (not having read Doyle I can’t comment on that aspect), with his novels set in the 50s, Horowitz recreates the prose of the absent author Alan Conway. Susan Ryeland, the protagonist for (most of) the rest of the novel, notes that he is one of the most successful crime fiction authors of the time, and also at the same time repeatedly brings up how badly their publishing house is doing.
Two issues: firstly, I can understand the Agatha Christie style being popular in 1995 (when Conway published his first Pünd novel) but post 2012 we seem to be looking at more of a Gone Girl era. I don’t claim to know much about the genre of crime fiction (I really don’t – know or claim, both) but I think readers nowadays expect more psychology out of crime, more character depth, just more. Of course everyone still reads Agatha Christie, but she started writing in the early 1900s. Would people today still be interested in a Christie-imitator when they can get the real thing?
Secondly, a publishing house with an author who sells that many books – can it really do badly? I again don’t claim to know anything about publishing. But Susan often reminds us of Conway’s achievements as a popular author, only to go on to say that he’s the only success story the publishing house has. If this is how publishing really works, sue me, (not actually) I’d hate to be in that business. A world-bestselling author, his work translated into 35 languages, and the publishers are getting no good manuscripts otherwise?
Now that that’s out of the way. The internal story that Alan Conway wrote, Magpie Murders, is written in simple, uncomplicated, unremarkable prose. It’s basically a Christie 2.0, except I liked Poirot much more. It’s a normal, prototypes and tropes and all crime fiction piece. Everyone has a motive, and only the detective – and to some extent, the reader – is in the know. The external mystery that Susan Ryeland tries to crack is penned in what I assume to be Horowitz’s more natural prose – crisp, realistic, somewhat casual. And the third literary piece that we get a short glimpse of, Alan Conway’s novel which the publisher rejected, The Slide, is dismissed by both Susan and the publisher as ‘bad writing’, which I find puzzling, considering that there’s nothing extraordinary about the Atticus Pünd novels in any case, and there wasn’t enough of an extract from the book for me to gauge a concrete opinion. It’s radically different from Pünd no doubt, but different isn’t terrible. In fact, I do question Ryeland’s abilities as an editor if she thought Conway was such a great writer. He can form a mystery, no doubt, but the prolonged offering we get of last book is unremarkable in its prose and characters. It’s very been there, done that.
I’m usually sorry when I dislike a book. I feel even worse when I think a book is mediocre, everyone else liked it, and I don’t have much to say about why I felt…nothing. But that’s what I thought. The cozy mystery of Magpie Murders was actually more interesting to me than the outer mystery that Susan Ryeland finds herself being drawn into. I found the crucial revelatory scene in Ryeland’s mystery contrived and overdone.
Ultimately, in the outer mystery, the secrets weren’t big enough, the motive wasn’t strong enough, and none of it was clever enough. Wordplay and character-matching with two novels are all well when you do the story-within-a-story deal, but in this case, sadly, they made up bones that never formed a skeleton.
The two stories remained disparate except for a few tricks and connectors here and there, leading me to question the need for either one in the first place. Do one, not both. And I would’ve enjoyed the first (unoriginal thought it may be) story more, with its Christie-esque style (which, I suppose, goes against my thing about people wanting to read that these days, but hey, it’s a comparison) without the momentum being interrupted by Susan’s investigation, which results in a solution that’s just…well, lukewarm, I suppose.
There are several other unrealistic scenarios in the novel that (fortunately for me) are bursting with spoilers, so I don’t have to talk about them. I feel like too many people liked this book. I didn’t. I feel I’ve read better, that Horowitz can write a cleverer book, and that the crime fiction genre has definitely produced better. So, I leave no definite recommendation. If you liked the pitch, you’ll fall for it like a sitting duck (my phrasing might need some work). If you didn’t, well…there are more positive reviews out there, if you’re still keen.
Sometimes, some books come at the wrong time. Maybe it came at the wrong time for me. Maybe there was never really a right time. Who knows. I do know it’s impossible to analyse any piece of art objectively. Everything, unfortunately, is personal. Also, this is a rushed review and I didn’t talk much about character, pacing, etc., but to be honest, I have no real opinion on those aspects. Two novels in one are two halves, except it felt like I had the wrong lid for the bowl, if that makes sense.
Also, excuse #2, I have three tests in the next two weeks, if someone wants to give them for me that’d be great.
PS. A much more successful attempt at this sort of book-within-a-book (kind of) has been attempted (in my limited view) in Galbraith/JK Rowling’s The Silkworm. So in case you’re looking for something similar, but in my opinion, more clever (if extremely perverse), that’s what I would go for. Although it does lead me to wonder if and why so many authors are rude to their publishers.
All quotes attributed to the respective work.