Referential mystery

Referential mystery

Referential mystery

Magpie Murders     
Anthony Horowitz
2016, pp 200, Rs 499

It says something about Agatha Christie that her formalisation of the “cosy” murder mystery is the de facto form today. A small set of people gather in a closed environment — say an English village or a mansion — and one of them gets killed in a mysterious way. All the others have some or the other motivation to hate the victim. The detective is the outsider, cold and logical, interrogating the suspects one by one until he summons everyone into a room and dramatically reveals the killer.

But what do we lose by caging an entire genre in these unshakeable bars of genre? In these days of ascendancy of the mystery genre, we have ever-new variations of the plot beyond what Dame Agatha would have dreamed up. But there is still a sense of nostalgia for the “simple”, aka Christie days. In Magpie Murders, Anthony Horowitz thinks long and hard about what the traditional genre entailed, and then subverts it for the modern reader.

The book starts with Susan Ryeland, literary editor, getting the latest manuscript by murder-mystery writer Alan Conway. This is the ninth novel in the bestselling Atticus Pünd series — the series that has made the fortunes of her publishing house. Pünd is very similar to Hercule Poirot, and that is part of the reason why his books are so popular.

As Susan reads it, we, the readers, begin to read with her. The next 200-odd pages read exactly like an Agatha Christie novel starring Atticus Pünd. A cleaning woman has died in a country manor, a woman whom nobody liked much. A mysterious robbery takes place right after. Then a second murder. Pünd arrives to solve it. But this novel is different — the detective is stricken with a tumour and has mere months left to live. This will be his last case.

Susan comes to the end of the manuscript and realises that all is not well. There seem to be parts missing from the manuscript. Moreover, it seems connected to a real-life suicide — or was it murder? The passionate mystery reader Susan is willy-nilly turned into a detective. All of the mechanisms used by the fictional detectives come into play while Susan wonders at the enthusiasm she finds in herself to take on this role.

Horowitz manages to convey very well the difference between the closed world of the mystery novel and the genre-aware, far-more-complex “real world”. We actually have a scene where a policeman rants at the amateur detective about how real life is nothing like the neat and tidy mysteries — most murders are crimes of passion, not the cunningly arranged plans that Poirot and his ilk solve. There is also the contrast between the way a fictional detective somehow senses he is in a murder mystery situation, whereas things are not as clear-cut in real life — are we in a mystery? Is it a thriller? Hopefully we aren’t in a horror story?

Through it all, though, we the readers still long for the complete resolution of the open mysteries. What does this say about us? That we long for closure and for order. Worry not, for we’ll get both at the end of this book. But before that, we’d have to go through 400-plus pages, like reading two Christie mysteries in one go. It’s a fun ride.

The only complaint I have with the book is how low it aims to achieve. Once you know that the Pünd mystery is related to solving the larger problem, you expect that the very form and text of the manuscript holds vital clues that were unnoticed — otherwise, why would it be included in full? The feeling is delicious, somewhat akin to re-reading the poem in Nabokov’s Pale Fire, or even the ‘diary’ in Gone Girl. You look back over the manuscript text, trying to decipher the puzzle implied in it.

Alas, Magpie Murder is aspiring to no literary or conceptual heights. It is simply a rather clever mystery padded with an extra Christie pastiche. It would even have been possible to dispense with the Pünd mystery altogether and include a summary instead. Critiquing a genre within itself is a devilishly difficult task, unconvincingly done here, and readers are best advised to ignore those aspects and focus on the clues instead. Not that fans of the genre will complain. Two mysteries for the price of one? And written by Horowitz, who knows how to keep the pace going? And including a guest appearance by Mathew Pritchard, Dame Christie’s grandson? Who could refuse?