This is a whodunit within a whodunit. One Friday evening, Susan Ryeland, the Head of Fiction at Cloverleaf Books, picks up Magpie Murders, the latest manuscript by Alan Conway—one of their most successful writers—and takes it home. She pours herself a glass of wine and starts to read.
As she reads the manuscript, so do we. Conway’s book is Anthony Horowitz’s homage to Agatha Christie. It reads like a traditional English murder mystery. Like Hercule Poirot, detective Atticus Pünd is a foreigner who has moved to the UK during the Second World War.
The manuscript of Magpie Murders begins in the village of Saxby-on-Avon with the funeral of Mary Blakiston, a woman who used to clean for Sir Magnus Pye, the owner of the big house, Pye Hall. Mary has been found dead at the bottom of the stairs in what looks like an accident. A few days later, Sir Magnus is found decapitated in his home.
There are rumours in the village that Mary has been murdered—her son Robert had been heard arguing with her the day before she died. The past also holds its secrets. Mary’s younger son Tom had drowned in the pond at Pye Hall when he was 11. Was Tom’s death really an accident?
Just as Pünd is about to reveal all, Susan finds that the last chapter of the manuscript is missing. She is not only frustrated but also worried—Conway’s books are vital to the publisher’s survival. The copy that Charles Clover, her boss, has is also incomplete.
Meanwhile, Conway has been found dead at the bottom of a tower in his mansion in Farmington. The verdict is suicide. He was diagnosed with a terminal illness, and Charles has a letter from him hinting at his intentions.
But Susan is not convinced and suspects foul play. When she goes to Farmington, she finds that the village mirrors Saxby-on-Avon. Many of the characters in the book are based on people living there—like Vicar Robeson who appears in the book as Osborne (an anagram of his name). Conway’s house is the model for Pye Hall. Was he trying to leave clues in his book about what was really going on?
The story moves between the manuscript (set in Courier font) and Susan’s world. Horowitz also includes an excerpt from the first book that Conway wrote and the notes that Conway’s sister made about their childhood. Horowitz gets the different tones right—the pretentiousness of Conway’s early “serious” work is very different from the Atticus Pünd novel. But I’m not sure we needed two pages of it.
Horowitz said (in a Penguin Podcast) that writing a regular whodunit would be boring—the only way to liven it up would be to play with the form. He does that here and has great fun with it. I love whodunits and got two of them in one book here! This is an entertaining read, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.