To start the New Year, one of the best-sellers of last year: Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders. This is a portmanteau novel, with one story encasing another. The “wrap-around” story is that of Susan Ryeland, an editor at Cloverleaf Books, who has just taken delivery of what turns out to be the final work of her star author, Alan Conway, and his fictional detective Atticus Pünd. She (and the reader) get 270-odd pages through Conway’s manuscript only to discover the final chapter is missing. In trying to find out what happened to the ending, Susan becomes convinced that something also happened to the author, and that he did not commit suicide.
This is a skilful under-the-bonnet examination of what makes a classic crime novel, from the minimum-five-suspects dissection to the stock characters of country house fiction – the vicar on the creaking bicycle, the surly gardener, the doctor who knows more than professional discretion will allow them to reveal… Horowitz also writes women well, and I completely believed in his female editor, with her relationship dilemmas, using work as a distraction. And yet, something of the cynical attitude of the fictional Alan Conway crept in, who despised the crime stories that made him famous, and what it seemed was lacking here was some of the spiritedness of an Agatha Christie. When Horowitz wrote a new Sherlock Holmes, despite the modern subject matter, House of Silk contained some of the sheer joy of invention, but I came away from this without any belief that the author enjoyed the traditional village crime novel. (And yet his scripts for the early Midsomer Murders were highly entertaining. Perhaps you can’t step into the same river twice.)
In other news, a sad farewell to Sue Grafton, who died just after Christmas. Her last book, Y is for Yesterday, had been published earlier in the year. There will be no Z.