Anthony Horowitz is probably my favourite contemporary author of detective fiction, as his superb Sherlock Holmes novel The House of Silk (2011) and its genuinely exceptional follow-up Moriarty (2013) displayed an affinity for both the milieu of Holmes and the necessary misdirection and construction of a blistering plot that blindsides you at will which seems to elude many who try to walk this path these days. His earlier novel The Killing Joke (2004) isn’t really detective fiction per se, but shows a playfulness with narrative that is aware of many of the tropes of genre fiction and is worth mentioning here precisely because of how much it foreshadowed the work he does in Magpie Murders when it comes to deconstructing the classical detective and his ilk.
Also, no — or, indeed, yes, depending on how you want to look at it — this is a book published after 1959, my nominal cut-off date for this blog, which does not feature an impossible crime, my criterion for writing about anything published after said nominal cut-off date. (Sensation). The setting of false-1955 may not even be historical enough for the History and Mystery theme of the TNBs this month. (Renewed sensation). But y’know what? Bugger it. There are so few living authors I do read, and even fewer who have the love of the genre that Horowitz does, and I want to salute that.
Briefly, then, Magpie Murders is essentially two books in one: the first, Magpie Murders, is the ninth and latest from bestselling author Alan Conway’s series featuring the German-Greek detective Atticus Pünd and set in 1955. Murder in a stately home, threatening letters, suspicious villagers, suspects a-go-go, the works. The second book is the investigation launched by Conway’s editor Susan Ryeland when a) the Magpie Murders manuscript is incomplete and b) Conway is found mysteriously dead at his home. As she delves deeper into the life and movements of Conway in his last days she finds an increasing number of parallels between his real life and the life depicted in his book, and it is thrown into question whether the manuscript contains clues that may help solve his murder…if, indeed, he was murdered…
What I found particularly interesting about this from a history perspective is the 1955 setting of “Alan Conway’s” book. That book is in its own way a historical mystery, as it is posited as written in 2015 while set 60 years before and is redolent in the tiny flashes of historical detail that inform the best mystery novels contemporary to this period: Pünd’s deliberate Germanic attitude and manner of speaking is played well but not over-played, with perhaps the broadest sweep also feeling the truest in his first encounter with Conway’s Japp substitute, Inspector Raymond Chubb:
“Herr Pünd!” he exclaimed. It was always ‘herr’ and somehow Chubb implied that there was some failing in Pünd’s character being born in Germany. After all, he might have been saying, let’s not forget who won the war.
It’s unsurprising that Horowitz has such a good handle on his setting, he spent years writing the WW2-set Foyle’s War and adapted 10 or so episodes for Agatha Christie’s Poirot and so has form in this genre in this era. It feels suitably contemporary because he doesn’t go into too great an effort to describe it: two pubs, a church, some woodland, the Big House, a handful of streets, all approximately spatially related to each other like this, job done. The attitudes, too, of both a small village mindset and the challenges that such a place faces when people find themselves under suspicious or accusation, are wrought from countless Village Mysteries of the time: the Agatha Christie familiarity is reinforced time and again, but it really does feel a bit The Moving Finger (1942) or Dead Man’s Folly (1956).
And then — and this is where the meta-fictional deconstruction in the title of this post comes in — there are ways in which it really doesn’t feel like a 1955 Village Mystery. Now, let’s be clear: I know it’s not supposed to, it’s a historical ‘cosy’ (sigh) mystery written in 2015, not trying to present itself as a document from the time in which it’s set, and that is precisely what is so interesting. It spoils nothing to reveal that early on, when we first meet the vicar Robin Osborne, there’s a scene between him and his wife where she leans over him as he is sat down and kisses him on the back of the head. As he does this, “Conway” tells us that the vicar feels his wife’s breasts pressing against his neck — not to imply arousal or distaste, simply a mention that it happens and he is aware of it. Now, I’m pretty sure the women in Agatha’s day had breasts, and I’m pretty sure several vicars in the 1950s experienced this exact same sensation, but, wow, would it have caused something akin to a Götterdämmerung of polite society were they mentioned in so cavalier a fashion in a detective novel.
Equally, the resolution of the thread involving the vicar — no spoilers — utilises a revelation that I very much doubt had ever been, nor would ever be, used in novels from this era even though I don’t again doubt for a second that it’s realistic and very possible. Christie (I’m sorry to keep using Dame Agatha as the yardstick over Dot Sayers or Ngaio Marsh, but it’s an easier comparison since I’m guessing you’ll’ve all read some Christie in your time) didn’t shy away from much, but this would have been even beyond her narrative…acumen, I feel.
And, let’s be very, very clear, that is not a bad thing. It’s a great thing. In re-evaluating a bygone era from however many years hence, authors have the power to add interpretations and events that would never have been used at the time but still feel part of that world and that age — taboos, if you will, have passed, and our more (for want of a better word) enlightened age grants an editorial freedom with the past that the past itself would never have admitted. If anything, this novel-within-a-novel highlights what historical mysteries should be doing — adding to the understanding or perspective of a time which with hindsight has much more to offer than could be used when that piece of the past was more recent. In a way, this echoes Paul Doherty’s treatment of Alexander the Great as explored last week, as our representation of history is freer once an era passes.
By reason of comparison, take the so-called Hays Code which determined so much of what could and could not be shown on film during the ‘classic era’ of Hollywood: if two people are shown in bed, one of them must have at least one foot on the floor; limit the use of profanity and/or blasphemy; no mockery of the clergy…these restrictions prohibited the display of actions that would have occurred at the time, and since so codification has gone out of style there is much more freedom to show them and give a new representation of life at the time. No-one is suggesting that it’s okay to make a Western set in Nevada in the 1860s where the cowboys come in from a tough day on the range and cook a microwave lasagne, but there’s more scope to show the violence, the profanity, the hardship, and the consequences of such a life at such a time.
On top of this, there is also the reflection upon the old-style whodunnit compared to modern crime novels that forms part of the basis of the modern day part of Magpie Murders. “Cities are anonymous,” Susan Ryeland reflects at one point, “but in a small rural community everyone knows everyone, making it so much easier to create suspects and, for that matter, people to suspect them.” There’s also this wonderfully insightful reflection on the role of the detective in mystery fiction:
[I]f there is one thing that unites all the detectives I’ve ever read about, it’s their inherent loneliness. The suspects know each other. They may well be family or friends. But the detective is always the outsider. He asks the necessary questions, but he doesn’t actually form a relationship with anyone. He doesn’t trust them, and they in turn are afraid of him. … Once the killer has been identified, the detective leaves and is never seen again.
Elsewhere, a very modern copper disdains the ornateness of fictional murder, and another character dismisses detective fiction as “eighty thousand words to prove that the butler did it”. The joke here is that this is very much both the book Horowitz is writing and the snobbery he’s demonstrating to be false. There are echoes of everything said above in the investigation Susan Ryeland finds herself conducting, and yet that part of Magpie Murders is very much a crime novel as well as a detective novel: the case, we’re told right at the very start, has a staggering effect on her life, but running parallel to this are concerns about her love life, the decisions she has to make for her career and her happiness…all very (and, one can’t help but feel, deliberately) removed from the orderly world or Herr Pünd and his murdered aristocrat.
In this way, Horowitz is eating his cake while also retaining 100% of said cake in both providing a historical narrative and then stepping back to critique them in a way that throws the inherent falseness of such arguments into sharp relief. Deconstructing an already-deconstructed narrative? Hot damn. How many more detective novels can he write? Let’s hope it’s a very great number indeed…
This blog being my own particular bully-pulpit, I’d like to point out that the novel-within-a-novel and the ‘two narratives with parallels between them to provide and solve a mystery’ conceits used so well herein are also explored in Paul Halter’s Death Invites You and The Picture from the Past respectively. If you enjoyed those, you’ll find a lot to enjoy in Magpie Murders and I urge you to check it out (and the converse is also true, of course).
Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime: A key part of this novel is that the very genre of detective fiction is deconstructed and critiqued in a loving way, by a writer who loves the genre. And in particular this deconstruction is not done in an over the top or excessive way, but is allowed to filter through the narrative, particularly in the final third of the novel with Ryeland. For instance the nature and the role of the detective is explored and in some ways is deglamourized, emphasising its loneliness and its tendency to breed a lack of trust in others.