FICTION: The path precarious

February 05, 2017


W.H. Auden, in his notable essay ‘The guilty vicarage’, explained the enduring charm of crime fiction, despite the genre being scoffed at by highbrow literati. He argued that detective fiction allowed readers catharsis and magical satisfaction which translated into escape literature. I concur that there is something deeply satisfying about a classic whodunnit — whether it is our propensity for solving puzzles, the gratification derived from a tidy resolution, or the thrill of matching wits with a sleuth, is open for debate.

Anthony Horowitz’s book begins with protagonist Susan Ryeland, the head of fiction at Cloverleaf Books, narrating the story in retrospect. She is editor of the hugely popular Atticus Pund series of books written by Alan Conway, and is about to start reading the draft of his latest novel titled Magpie Murders.

The first 200-plus pages are dedicated to this manuscript, which is a superb pastiche of the golden age of mystery. There is a double murder of a meddling housekeeper and his hateful employer Magnus Pye, a bevy of eccentric yet suspicious characters, and Atticus, an ailing detective who is also a German refugee. Atticus — clearly a derivative of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot — with the help of his sidekick, James, trails the clues of both the murders as the mystery unfolds and long-buried secrets come out in the open. As the story heads towards a dramatic climax, it abruptly ends. Susan (and the reader) is exasperated to find that the last two chapters of the book are missing. The plot thickens when later in the day, Susan discovers from the news that Alan has allegedly committed suicide.

Magpie Murders (NOVEL) | By Anthony Horowitz | Orion, UK | ISBN: 978-1409158363 | 464pp.

Horowitz subverts the classic crime fiction genre by intertwining two intricately plotted mysteries in a metafictional narrative. Alan’s death is made all the more mysterious by the fact that he had submitted the draft just a few days earlier and was all geared up for the publicity tour; his schedule was not that of a man planning to throw himself off a tower.

Susan’s search for the missing chapters takes her down a rabbit hole of complicated relationships and dark secrets. As she interrogates people closest to Alan and unearths more of his writing, she realises there is much more to the story than meets the eye. Alan has a tendency of camouflaging his true motives and hiding clues beneath his archetypal detective stories. Susan comes to know that he loved deluding his readers by sneaky word-building and giving his characters clever names. It is up to Susan now to decipher the secret references that Alan has concealed in his books and put together all the pieces of the puzzle.

It soon becomes apparent that there are definite parallels between the characters in Magpie Murders and Alan’s real-life social circle. Susan has to trace his roots back to his childhood to solve the enigma of his death. She, ironically, becomes a real-life detective, but her job is twofold as she has to peruse Alan’s manuscript while also investigating his whereabouts in his last days and relationship dynamics with the people closest to him — his partner, his sister, and Susan’s colleague and head of Cloverleaf Books, Charles.

To sustain the momentum of a story-within-story structure, the writing has to be self-assured with an aesthetically sound style as the narration flits between the story written by Alan and that by the writer himself. Horowitz definitely doesn’t make it any easier for himself by including an additional manuscript of a novel by a student who alleges that Alan has plagiarised his ideas.

Whodunnits are all about truth: nothing more, nothing less. In a world full of uncertainties, is it not inherently satisfying to come to the last page with every i dotted and every t crossed? The stories mimic our experience in the world. We are surrounded by tensions and ambiguities, which we spend half our life trying to resolve and we’ll probably be on our own deathbed when we reach that moment when everything makes sense. Just about every whodunnit provides that pleasure. It is the reason for their existence. It’s why Magpie Murders was so bloody irritating. Excerpt from the book

The book poses pertinent questions about the tenuous line between inspiration and plagiarism. Susan is disappointed when she discovers Alan had borrowed names for places and characters for his books from Agatha Christie’s works. He also poached plot ideas from people around him, and we are told that the influence for Atticus is Ben Kingsley’s character from Schindler’s List. She finds a photo of Kingsley in Alan’s private diary and wonders why she feels cheated when it’s common knowledge that many writers base characters on icons or people they know. Is imitation really the sincerest form of flattery or does that raise questions about the authenticity of a writer’s work?

Magpie Murders is an ode to Christie’s brand of classic detective fiction. It avoids the pitfall of being gimmicky with the writer keeping the suspense taut throughout the expansive length of the novel. It’s a win-win situation — the writer gets to flaunt his range and grasp of the crime fiction genre and the readers get two mysteries in one book. The only problem in resolving multiple mysteries is the protracted narrative which results in the book being almost 500 pages long. My attention wavered a bit towards the end because of the long drawn-out denouement and the constant skipping from the inner story to the outer one. Also, the self-referential nature of metafiction gets a bit tedious in some later chapters.

One constant niggle I had was the glaring editing mistakes and typographical errors. It was even more surprising since this book is published by a major publishing house and more careful editing of some sections would have resulted in a more compact story. For aficionados of detective fiction, there are many nuggets of information about the inspirations and writing process of some pioneers of the genre. Some interesting questions are also answered, such as “Why do English villages lend themselves so well to murder?”

The story also makes one think about the surreal disconnect between fiction and reality. Susan reads the manuscript with a critical eye, constantly scrutinising the story arc to spot hackneyed plot twists and uninspired tropes, much like readers who like to formulate their own hypotheses while reading a whodunnit: connecting the dots, looking for a sequence in isolated incidents, and pre-empting key twists. Susan, who is now embroiled in a real-life murder mystery, does not have the luxury of a streamlined plot; she must dig up Alan’s secrets and search for any incriminating facts that may help her disentangle his suspicious death.

Magpie Murders is an inventive, highly entertaining novel with Horowitz deftly balancing the two diametrically opposite narratives — one a homage to classic detective fiction, the other a very contemporary mystery. This book needs to be read with attention to detail or you might miss a few tricks in the multilayered plot line. I only wish the writer had also emulated Christie’s penchant for succinct storytelling.

The reviewer is a Karachi-based freelance writer and critic.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, February 5th, 2017