I’d forgotten I had this book on my shelf. I read it when it first came out in 2008 with trumpets blaring and accolades galore. I remembered little about it. I don’t read much crime fiction but made an exception with this one. I lost my entire library on our move to Bali twelve years ago so don’t know how this copy got onto my shelf, nor what made me read it again.
Temple is famous for his Jack Irish crime series, but this is a stand alone work which won the Duncan Lawrie Dagger Award: the UK’s Crime Writers Association’s best crime novel of the year (2007)
My copy is looking a bit faded and world-worn, a bit like its protagonist, Joseph Cashin. He’s a good guy cop, unambitious, world-weary, smart, a body racked with past injuries, but with a healthy disrespect for authority.
It was darkening when Cashin reached home, the wind ruffling the trees on the hill, strumming the corrugated iron roof. He got the fire going, took out a six-pack of Carlsberg, put on L’elisir d’amore, Donizetti, sank into the old chair, cushion in the small of his back. Tired in the trunk, hurting in the pelvis, pains down his legs, he swallowed two aspirins with the first swig of beer.
Short sharp sentences separated by commas, semicolons too posh for Joe Cashin. It gives the narrative that staccato American punch epitomised by the famous American crime writer, Dashiell Hammett. But 3rd person here, not 1st. His dialogue between Aussie men is perfectly obtuse, as if each alternative line has been omitted. I was surprised at the extent of the ‘foul’ language, although appropriate for these Australian male characters. The rural setting and tone belying its contemporary (2005) release.
A well respected and wealthy local is found dead in his home. What seems a simple break-in-gone-wrong, exacerbated by a botched police chase which leaves all three suspects dead, leads everyone to think case closed, despite or because of police efforts. All except Joe Cashin that is. The crime formula is honoured: tight-lipped family, newly exposed secrets, increased sinister misdeeds, a seemingly unrelated but vicious murder, a dead man proves not to be, lies and police corruption, a few red herrings, and a sexul dalience. Good crime fiction stuff. It’s staying on my shelf.
There is a constant with contemporary crime writing: you don’t get to know the victim until after they’re dead. There is a focus on the mystery, the who-did-it, the victim is not so important, except in relation to why. Consequently, popular crime fiction has, usually, left me cold. Of course, as sheer entertainment, it fills the bill, but I don’t really care who did it; that’s not the point, I’ve been told: it’s the working it out, of having it worked out for you, that provides the satisfaction.
What attracted me to pick up Magpie Murders (2016) from my sister’s bookshelf, in the beautiful Barossa Valley, while waiting for international travel to re-start so I could go home, was the promise that this was something different; not just a who-done-it.
This is a book about a book. A book editor, Susan Ryeland, is to read the latest manuscript of her author client, Alan Conway; a man she doesn’t like very much but she likes his work (because it’s successful and makes her company a lot of money that secures her job) and is looking forward to reading Conway’s latest, Atticus Pünt mystery #9, Magpie Murders. We meet Susan in the first-person prologue as she sits in her house in Crouch End London preparing herself to read and telling us that, she didn’t know it then, Magpie Murders was going to change her life.
But Magpie Murders really did change everything for me. I no longer live at Crouch End. I no longer have my job. I’ve managed to lose a great many friends. That evening, as I reached out and turned the first page of the typescript, I had no idea of the journey I was about to begin and, quite frankly, I wish I’d never allowed myself to get pulled on board. It was all down to that bastard, Alan Conway.
Then we turn the page and get to Alan Conway’s typescript itself – the book that this book is about – satisfactorily in a different font, a typescript font, Courtier, always used for screen and tele plays. However, to cement the pretense we first read About the Author, Alan Conway, and his many achievements; then a list of his other Atticus Pünd titles; then a page of glowing quotes from writers, newspapers, and magazines ending with a capitalised announcement:
SOON TO BE A MAJOR BBC1 TELEVISION SERIES (and it probably will be)
We, now, like Susan, are about to read Alan Conway’s new book, Magpie Murders.
And yes, the first victim has already been dispatched.
23 July 1955. There was going to be a funeral. Two gravediggers, old Jeff Weaver and his son, Adam, had been out at first light and everything was ready.(Gravediggers! So classic, Shakespearean even. Detail has always been the novelists’ trick to make you believe their fiction, and a day and date is the most believable detail of all.)
Conway’s Magpie Murders is set in a small English village, Saxby-on-Avon, and, as expected, small village life is far from quiet, or straight-forward; all reminiscent of Horowitz’s other vastly popular invention, Midsomer Murders. Then there’s another murder, a decapitation no less, and then another death with Atticus Pünd fishing around for clues and revealing all the undercurrents of resentment, jealousy, lies, and treachery that seem to make up British village existence.
This is all faithful to the genre in the great tradition of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. But if you flick through the pages-to-come you will see a change in font and a return to Susan’s first person narrative in Crouch End in 2016:
Annoying isn’t it? She says. I dared not read or flick further as I wanted to let Horowitz do his work on me, and read the book as he intended it to be read, but I was re-assured that, yes, this was probably going to be a very different crime novel. I was intrigued because what we discover is that Alan Conway’s Magpie Murders is … (no spoilers here).
(I was reminded of Ian McEwan who also likes to play around with the reader, as in his novel Sweet Tooth (2012) where the fact that you’re reading it tells you how it ends.)
Whatever it was that I was expecting from Horowitz, the different fonts, and information from the front and back covers, my sister’s comments, doesn’t happen. Something else happens. The book, Conway’s Magpie Murders, and the dilemma that faces Susan Ryland, when she, and you, get to page 219 of Conway’s Magpie Murders, takes Horowitz’s Magpie Murders, off in a completely different direction … or does it?
For crime buffs, this is a real and unexpected treat, although the unexpected bit turns out to be another who-done-it: two for the price of one!
Horowitz also has his tongue firmly in his cheek – and for this reason alone I j u s t might read another book of his. (Look at that smile on his face!) Susan arranges a meeting over a cup of tea with the local policeman. He gives her 15 minutes of his time but he spends almost 12 minutes of this time telling her about the reality of murder:
… All the murderers I’ve met have been thick as shit. Not clever people. Not posh or upper class. Thick as shit. And you know how we catch them? We don’t ask them clever questions and work out that they don’t have an alibi, that they weren’t actually where they were meant to be. We catch them on CCTV. Half the time they leave their DNA all over the crime scene. Or they confess. Maybe one day you should publish the truth although I’m telling you, nobody would want to read it … if you want my advice, you’ll go back to London and forget it. Thanks for the tea.
If you read who-done-its, read this one, if you haven’t already.
Here, at the end of my blog I usually supply links to interesting videos of, or about, the writer and/or their book, to compliment what I have written. But not this time. Too much information would give away the surprises.
However, I will tell you where you can buy it. Here.
Released this year is another Susan Ryeland mystery: Moonflower Murders (Magpie Murders 2). He loves alliteration.
A woman sits at her regular table in a café and has noticed for many mornings a couple at their regular table. She has become fascinated by them; her day isn’t complete, or even ruined, if, because of work or some other reason, she has to miss her morning coffee and doesn’t get her daily dose of them. The husband is suddenly and brutally killed, murdered unnecessarily, possibly even mistakenly, and the woman goes up to the wife and offers her condolences and is invited into the life of the widow.
I’m not given anything away by telling you that: this all happens just before the novel begins.
This is the starting point, the seed, that allows Marías to write many conversations, some even imaginary; to explore the subject of death, or more specifically, the effects of death on those who remain.
Now, don’t get scared but I’m going to use a word that scares most readers: philosophical. It’s like a philosophical exploration of the effects of death on people, but the use of dialogue between characters, instead of long passages of prose, makes the ideas, the philosophy, so accessible. We’ve all thought about it (Haven’t you?). In conversations, as short sometimes as Marías’s, I’ve often used the sentence, ‘We cease to exist after we die in exactly the same way as we don’t exist before we are born’. This is the very subject of one of the conversations in the novel and one of the reasons I found the book so interesting, particularly because one of the characters refutes that statement. Another reason is that the writer is a man but the first person narrator is a woman. This is unusual. If the protagonist and author are of different genders the author usually chooses to use the third person.
(But there is also mystery. I started writing this blog when I was a third of the way through – I often start my blog well before I’ve finished the book, even finishing the blog-writing before I finish the novel-reading – when I had a sneaking suspicion that the circumstances surrounding the murder may not be true. I haven’t worked out how Marías triggered this thought, if it’s a red herring, or novelistic supposition. I shall see.)
Curiously, and comically, Marías gives the protagonist, the lonely woman in the cafe, Maria Dolz, a job at a publishing house. She has a very low opinion of writers; they continuously annoy, frustrate, and make unwanted demands on her. She is a passive woman, and knows it, but seems to enjoy subverting her writer’s wishes and gaining the upper hand if only to prove to herself that she isn’t as passive as she believes herself to be.
And now that she has been introduced into the life of the sudden widow, Luisa Desverne, and met her friends, she falls hopelessly in love with one of them, Javier Diaz-Varela, the one that she imagines would’ve been chosen by the murdered husband to console, care for, and eventually marry his wife had he had forewarning of his own demise; believing that Diaz-Varela is indeed biding his time with her, toying with her, waiting for Luisa to notice and accept him. Maria has a vivid and self-deprecating imagination.
‘If anything bad were to happen to me and I was no longer here,’ Desverne might have said one day, ‘I’m counting on you to take care of Luisa and the kids.’
‘What do you mean? What are you talking about? Why do you say that? You’re not ill are you?’ Diaz-Varela would have replied, anxious and taken aback.
(Ah, yes, a mystery!)
Marías is continually praised for his sentences, and his sentences are indeed dense, elegant, and rewarding; even very long, but don’t be fooled by a page long sentence; it’s usually a page of many sentences but only one full stop.
When someone is in love, or, more precisely, when a woman is in love and in the early stages of an affair, when it still has all the allure of the new and surprising, she is usually capable of taking an interest in anything that the object of her love is interested in or speaks about. She’s not just pretending as a way of pleasing him or winning him over or establishing a fragile stronghold, although there is an element of that, she really does pay attention and allow herself to be generally caught up in what he feels and transmits, be in enthusiasm, aversion, sympathy, fear, anxiety, or even obsession.
The book slowly takes on the form of a murder novel, but not one that could easily be turned into a movie as it all happens in the mind of Maria. She imagines a lot of things, conversations, desires, intentions, but does she imagine everything?
(I’m two thirds of the way through now … )
There is certainly a taste of fear for Maria’s well being, and a growing sense of excitement that borders on compulsive page-turning. I found myself reading the first paragraph of a new (short, un-numbered, un-titled) chapter to get the sense of the continuing story, but then find myself at the next chapter. There is also a recurring image of the dead returning which is always accompanied with a feeling of dread, even though the deceased has been greatly mourned.
… surely not!
You can buy the paperback, ebook, audio book, and/or read a free sample here.
Listen to Marías reading from one of his novels and talking about writing here.
Arthur Gask was a British dentist and agnostic. He divorced his wife in 1909 and later that year, married his children’s nanny, and emigrated to Adelaide, South Australia in 1920 with his two children from his second wife, and one from his first. There’s a story there. He practiced on North Terrace and was one of the first to use gas on his patients. While waiting for them to arrive he started writing stories and paid for his first novel, The Secret of the Sandhills (1921) to be published. It was an instant success.
Thirty of his thirty four novels feature the detective Gilbert Larose. From his first success he, on average, published a book a year until his death; the last one, Crime Upon Crime, came out in 1952, the year after he died. His works were successful in the UK and Europe and many were serialised in newspapers, including the Adelaide Advertiser.
He was greatly admired by Bertrand Russell and H. G. Wells, who thought The Vengeance of Larose (1939) as his “best piece of story-telling…It kept me up till half-past one.”
All the clues and information are expressed throughout the story in the time-line of when they happen; none of this denouement in a drawing-room when the hero explains everything – Agatha Christie-like – to an assembled crowd every one of which could be the murderer. There is a murder plot, drug smuggling, stolen submarine-plans, corrupt diplomats, fiendish villains, and, of course, an exemplary, multitalented, detective, a master of languages, disguises, and deduction. There are few women either mistresses or wives, and all the men are either a knights, aristocrats, or have a house in the country. The style is full of coincidences and some quite unbelievable: in order to hatch a plan with his Japanese co-accused the undercover detective says – within ear-shot of their captors, “You understand Italian? Ah, I thought you would.”
If you have a habit of waking up in the middle of the night with an overactive brain and find it hard to get back to sleep, these novels are the perfect solution.
Anna Katharine Green was an American poet and novelist. She was one of the first writers of detective fiction in America and distinguished herself by writing well plotted, legally accurate stories. Born in Brooklyn, New York, her early ambition was to write romantic verse, but she was unsuccessful. She is credited with shaping detective fiction into its classic form, and developing the series detective. Her main character was detective Ebenezer Gryce of the New York Metropolitan Police Force, but in three novels he is assisted by the nosy society spinster Amelia Butterworth, the prototype for Miss Marple and other creations. She also invented the ‘girl detective’: in the character of Violet Strange, a debutante with a secret life as a sleuth.
I am not an inquisitive woman, but when, in the middle of a certain warm night in September, I heard a carriage draw up at the adjoining house and stop, I could not resist the temptation of leaving my bed and taking a peep through the curtains of my window.
So begins Green’s first Amelia Butterworth mystery, That Affair Next Door (1897), and because of the narrator’s insistence on her incuriousness you know immediately what kind of woman she is.
This work is a delight. An intriguing story and a delicious character. Another perfect read for that long holiday flight.
English writer, poet, philosopher, dramatist, journalist, orator, lay theologian, biographer, and literary and art critic. But the most successful association of fiction with social judgment is in Chesterton’s series on the priest-sleuth Father Brown: The Innocence of Father Brown (1911), followed by The Wisdom… (1914), The Incredulity… (1926), The Secret… (1927), and The Scandal of Father Brown (1935). In spite of his literary accomplishments, he considered himself primarily a journalist. He wrote over 4000 newspaper essays, including 30 years worth of weekly columns for the Illustrated London News, and 13 years of weekly columns for the Daily News. He also edited his own newspaper, G.K.’s Weekly. Chesterton was equally at ease with literary and social criticism, history, politics, economics, philosophy, and theology.
Father Brown is introduced to crime fiction in a short story called the The Blue Cross, which became the leading story in the first Father Brown collection:The Innocence of Father Brown (1911). The main character in this story, and the second, The Secret Garden, is a French instinctive detective, Aristide Valentin, head of the Paris Police, possibly the inspiration for Christie’s Hercule Poirot, who first appeared in 1920. The master villian, M. Hercule Flambeau, similar to Sherlock Holmes nemesis, James Moriarty, is also introduced and appears in 48 Father Brown Stories. Father Brown is a minor character in both these stories but takes the main role in the third and subsequent works because … because … well, I won’t tell you why in case you read it; no spoilers here.
The crime is usually seemingly unsolvable: a corpse with a severed head found in a walled, inaccessible garden while the dinner guests mingle and smoke cigars. The victim is a stranger. How did it get there? Who is he? How was his head severed so neatly? How did the murderer get into and out of the garden. The solution rests on a single piece of information the reader isn’t initially told but one that mild-mannered Father Brown deduces.
Fun and good, if flowery writing – typical of the period, and curious as these stories contain many elements of crime fiction that we now take for granted.