Friday, 10 February 2017

BOOK CLUB: Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz


This month on Book Club, we discuss Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz.

About the author

Anthony Horowitz is the author of the number one bestselling Alex Rider books and The Power of Five series. He has enjoyed huge success as a writer for both children and adults, most recently with the latest adventure in the Alex Rider series, Russian Roulette and the highly acclaimed Sherlock Holmes novels, The House of Silk and Moriarty. Anthony was also chosen by the Ian Fleming estate to write the new James Bond novel which will be published next year. In 2014 he was awarded an OBE for Services to Literature. He has also created and written many major television series, including Injustice, Collision and the award-winning Foyle’s War.

About the Book

When editor Susan Ryeland is given the tattered manuscript of Alan Conway's latest novel, she has little idea it will change her life. She's worked with the revered crime writer for years and his detective, Atticus Pund, is renowned for solving crimes in the sleepy English villages of the 1950s. As Susan knows only too well, vintage crime sells handsomely. It's just a shame that it means dealing with an author like Alan Conway...
But Conway's latest tale of murder at Pye Hall is not quite what it seems. Yes, there are dead bodies and a host of intriguing suspects, but hidden in the pages of the manuscript there lies another story: a tale written between the very words on the page, telling of real-life jealousy, greed, ruthless ambition and murder.
From Sunday Times bestseller Anthony Horowitz comes Magpie Murders, his deliciously dark take on the cosy crime novel, brought bang- up-to-date with a fiendish modern twist.

Discussion:

For crime fictions fans, this book is probably the ultimate red herring. Did you come to this book with any pre-conceptions?

(GH)  None at all. I actually listened to the audible version of the book, attracted both by my appreciation of the author (especially his Sherlock Holmes books) and the narrator, Samantha Bond. I had no idea that the main context of the plot was a story inside a story. But I totally appreciated the originality of the storyline.

(JJ) Apart from admiring everything Horowitz does, none. The book took me by surprise and carried me along in both its guises. I too listened to it first but then read it in paperback form. I needed to flip back and forth to remind myself of key clues. The central device is quite a literary sleight of hand, but it's done beautifully here, so most readers will go with the flow.

There was a feeling when reading the novel that the reader themselves was being placed right in the thick of things and used as a character in their own right. Did that feeling come across to you too?

(GH) I did think as I was reading the book that the reader would have far more appreciation of the work if they were crime fiction fans, schooled in the likes of Dorothy L Sayers and Agatha Christie. And as most of us avid crime fans started life in that era of crime fiction, it felt as if we were being included in an in-crowd with lots of nods and winks and Masonic type gestures to make us feel included. However, when it turned out that Alan Conway was actually putting two fingers up to the world that had made him a bestseller, I did feel rather defensive. So, was I included in the story, yes, clearly I had been sucked in!

(JJ) Yes, the reader is very much a character but not necessarily one I identified with. I felt a little as if this was the publishing world term, 'The Reader', which actually means very little. However, as Gilly says, there are all the allusions to classic crime fiction which make readers of crime feel part of the story. The feeling alternates between being included as someone in-the-know and manipulated as the author(s) lead you up the garden path. All these are elements of classic crime.

What do you think are the messages Horowitz may be giving here about authors and publishers?

(GH) I think there's a cross-section of lives on display here, and some of them may be modelled on people the author has met through his career. We see an editor who is committed to her work and her authors, yet feels somewhat trapped by her position. We have an author who feels his real genius is hidden by the restrictions of a publishing world who don't recognise the writer he truly wants to be, and he also feels trapped by the character and books he created. Does he forego fame and millions to write the book he truly wants to write? Although he chose the fame, he hates himself for it and his decision to turn his life around leads to his death. And we have the jealousy and greed inherent in many professions. I'm not sure there are any hidden messages from he author, Horowitz is clearly one talent who is not restricted in his writing, but I am betting one or more of the characters are based on real life.

(JJ) As in the classic central section, Horowitz plays with tropes. In our frame section of the story, those tropes are still there, but updated. He touches on the litfic versus genre fiction debate, takes on populism and snobbery, covers the publishing world with a layer of dust and at the same time, highlights its fragility as artistic endeavour in a commercial world. My favourite mirror trick was looking at the triggers of Conway's imagination. The author's own village, family, neighbours are easily traceable sources of factors in his book. Or are they? This is another favourite reader hobby, to assess how much the writer's real life informs her/his fiction. Another sly smile at the relationship between fact, fiction and interpretation.

So, Atticus Pund and his country house murder. It takes us back to leafy post-war times of Agatha Christie ... looking at the author's interpretation of Alan Conway as a writer - do you think it worked?

(GH) Well, I was just as frustrated as Susan Ryeland to discover the end of the novel was missing so I must have been suitably entertained! I thought the story and characters fitted the period and genre. I suppose nowadays we would tag it as cosy crime. However, even before the denouement of the novel, I did find myself inwardly criticising the writing of Alan Conway. Now, I look back and realise that's exactly what Horowitz intended. He wanted the faux pas in there, the info dumps, the clich├ęs, the pace issues. Conway wanted to come across as all of those things, because he resented being forced to write that way in the first place. And for Horowitz, I can only imagine the level of skill required to deliberately write badly!

(JJ) The striking thing about how the author takes on these two authorial voices is the ability to blend the mechanics of plot with character and setting. The period piece delighted me in so many ways: trains, conversations, details, and slowed-down communication. There is also the innate prejudice of the British towards this odd little foreigner, who suffered his own private battle during the war. The contrasts and similarities with characters such as Poirot are handled with a deft touch.
Yet the painting-by-numbers feel of classic crime is slow in the extreme, yet the reader (The Reader) keeps turning pages because of the characters.

I mentioned the feeling of being part of an in-crowd of crime fiction fans, did you pick up any of the clues dotted throughout the Atticus Punt novel on first read through?

(GH)  Yes, I did. There were lots of mentions of Agatha Christie titles. The 3:50 from Paddington was casually tossed in as a real train journey taken by Atticus's bumbling assistant. There were many nods to Christie's use of nursery rhymes, even the very title is a link. But when Ryeland went through and listed them, I admit I did wonder how anyone could take Conway's writing seriously, but he was very clever in his approach. However, I admit I've never been great with anagrams ...

(JJ) To an extent while listening, but far more so when reading on paper. It's almost as if there's a third detective in this story - the reader, spotting clues and feeling smug at recognising an allusion to those that went before. This is actively encouraged by regular summaries and reminders by Susan's character in particular. It also echoes Alan's own obsession with acrostics and anagrams and clues in plain sight, something I delight in, being a bit of a word-nerd.

What were your feelings about the real-life murder of Alan Conway and the denouement of the novel?

(GH) I enjoyed it immensely. I though Susan Ryeland held her own as lead character and amateur investigator. It almost felt like two stories within one book, but the styles were so different that even though there were echoes in the plot, there was no confusion. The ending was cleverly plotted and believable, and I am glad that after Susan went through to discover the truth, she came through to tell the tale.

(JJ) While I relished the framing device of the contemporary story, I actually preferred the classic village murder story overall. The publishing world and authorial dealing with agents and editors feels a bit too much like a busman's holiday. Yet I can see this is deliberate. Horowitz reminds us all along that we are readers, and getting carried away in a story is to lose one's critical faculties. Getting swept up in the adventure requires resistance and analysis and thought. It's got some of the old Brechtian insistence on distance - a story is a story. Never forget you are reading a crime novel.

Horowitz has a talent for creating characters who although are real enough to step out of the page, are also often incredibly unlikable. It's a difficult task to get a reader to connect with that type of character, how do you think he achieves this?

(GH) I think believability is key. I am a writer and I've known writers like Alan Conway in real life. Frustrated by their own brilliance. And the in-joke is that Horowitz has doubtless known them too. So, although you don't 'care' about him, you care what happens and need to know how his story ends whether good or bad. Also, I think having secondary characters who have flaws but can create empathy in the reader is another reason we stick with the story and have to turn the page.

(JJ) His skill here is by breaking all kinds of writing 'rules'. He switches point-of-view with abandon in the classic story, turning the reader into viewer. We're in everyone's heads, privy to all their thoughts and interpretations, watching a theatre script, not reading a novel. Yet in the framing story, he allows us the smallest letterbox of perception through Susan's own interpretation. Susan dislikes Alan, thus so do we. She likes other characters (no spoilers) and therefore some revelations come as a shock to both of us.

Finally, how did you feel when you turned the final page?

(GH) I think I was tempted to raise a glass and congratulate the author on what was a stunning piece of writing. The talent needed to make something so layered feel to the reader amateurish at times, and yet complex at the same time, is the sign of a master craftsman. The distinct tones, voices and styles he achieves within one novel is amazing. Hats off to Mr Horowitz. And I'm also quite sad to see the end of Atticus Pund when I'd only just got to know him. Highly recommended.

(JJ) Entertained. Impressed. Amused. Sorry, as Gilly says, to say goodbye to certain characters. It's a very clever, sly, witty homage to those who went before. Not only that, but something every crime writer should read and understand. Magpie Murders is a work of craft, to be held up for every apprentice. I will read it again.



You can read our Bookmuse review by JJ Marsh here

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