Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Anthony Horowitz, British novelist and screenwriter

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.

Contempt by Michael Cordell

American novelist and screenwriter
Michael Cordell

Text courtesy of TCK Publishing.

There was a time when eBooks were thought to be the death of paper books, just like television once  was thought to be the death of movies. However, on both occasions  new ways of telling stories just slotted in alongside old ways of telling stories and all that happened was consumers were given more choice. Not such a bad outcome.

Back in 2019 Colm Toibin said, “I can’t do thrillers and I can’t do spy novels. I can’t do any genre-fiction books, really, none of them. I just get bored with the prose. I don’t find any rhythm in it. It’s blank, it’s nothing; it’s like watching TV.”

Yes, genre-fiction can be like watching TV, but writing ‘like watching TV’ is a skill in itself that some writers do well – and we’ve seen a surge of good dramatic TV writing over the last decade or more – and some writers do badly; Cordell does it well. He should know: he’s been teaching screenwriting for the past 15 years.

Thane Banning, a real estate lawyer, is on death row after being found guilty of a crime he didn’t commit. After five years he is released on a legal technicality, but soon finds himself defending a man, an innocent man, up on a murder charge, just like he was .. but the sweetness of the case, for Banning, is that the prosecutor is the same man, Bradford Stone, who put him behind bars. Win this and Banning gets to see Stone’s downfall.

It was a risk for Cordell to leave the backstory – the reason why Banning was on death row in the first place – so late in the set-up, almost a third of the way in. But there is a lot of the personal backstory to establish first, and its importance to the plot keeps the reader interested. Besides his old crime is intricately linked to the new on. No spoilers here.

Banning, a novice criminal lawyer, doesn’t start his new role well: everything, personal and professional, goes wrong and before the case really heats up Banning is heading for disaster. But his contempt for the legal system lets his determination and imagination fly. He decides to work by his own rules … hear the music thump and swell as Banning goes it alone.

This plotline is expected for such a genre piece, but Banning’s hurdles aren’t cliched ones, neither are his metaphors; standard fare for crime prose since Raymond Chandler was a pup.

We stay with Banning all the way, like an imp on his shoulder. However, unusually, even the imp gets left in the dark which gives the denouement, that little post climatic tie-up, a taste of exceptional unreality; but that’s a minor point.

This is a quick, easy, and entertaining read. What’s the ‘page-turner’ appellation for an ebook? A page-swiper? Yeah! Escapist fare.

You can find the link to the book here.

Here again is the link to TCK Publishing for more of the same.

And here is the author’s website.

The High Window by Raymond Chandler

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British-American crime writer, Raymond Chandler

Writers don’t think too much about genre; writers write what interests them. Genres are more important to booksellers as signposts to help readers find what they might enjoy.

Reading crime fiction is not only about who done it. It’s an escapist adventure into a strange world, almost filmic, where our fundamental assumptions are always confirmed: good, even if a little muddy, wins in the end.

The plot revolves around a rare, valuable and stolen coin, The Brasher Doubloon; a cranky client, two corpses, a wimpy son, wise-cracking dames, lazy police and nasty rich men. You get the picture.

Most crime fiction is written in the first person, which has its limitations. Unlike a third-person god-like narrator who knows everything, what people think and what they want including what will happen in the future, a first person narrator only knows what’s going on in their own head, and relies on what is seen, heard and felt to give clues to character’s motives and wishes. This is paramount in Chandler’s work: descriptions of people are all about physiognomy – the angle if a chin, clothes – the cut of a dress, gives clues to personalities, behaviour, and what might make them either smile at you or shoot you in the back.

“He was a lanky man with carroty short hair growing down to a point on his forehead. He had a long narrow head packed with shabby cunning. Greenish eyes stared under orange eyebrows. His ears were large and might have flapped min a high wind. He had a long nose that would be into things. The whole face was a trained face, a face that would know how to keep a secret, a face that held the effortless composure of a corpse in the morgue.”

All his characters are opportunists, if not after a quick buck, a quick fix, or a hook-up, they’re looking for gaps in your defense, eager to win a point, even if only for a little self-esteem. Characters with suggestive names: Eddie Prue, Jesse Breeze, Spanglet, and Linda Conquest – not unlike character’s names of Charles Dickens: Herbert Pocket, Charles Cheeryble, Bumble, and Mercy Pecksniff. The writing of Chandler is entertaining and lovingly cliché-free; it’s as if he searches for an ever-new cliché, uses it and immediately abandons it…

“Three dizzy-looking dames… all cigarettes and arched eye-brows and go-to-hell expressions.”

“She had eyes like strange sins.”

“Men … faces like lost battles”

“… enough clothes to hide behind a toothpick.”

” … there were quiet voices whispering of love or 10%”

“A tall fine-looking man in a grey suit cut by an angel…”

“women … faces like stale beer…”

“a great long gallows of a man…”

“She looked as flustered as a side of beef.”

“… as unperturbed as a bank manager refusing a loan.”

“You boys are cute as a couple if lost golf balls.”

Many commentators, such as the British crime writer, Mark Billington, praise the characterisation of Chandler’s work, but it’s all in Chandler’s outward description of them. Such commentators don’t realise how much descriptive work they do themselves to arrive at a rounded picture of a character; inspired, of course, by a few well-chosen and succinct words by the writer. This is higher praise, but it not the praise they’re talking about.

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Time to Kill, the 1942 screen version of The High Window starring Lloyd Nolan

If anything is going on in anyone’s head it’s never mentioned except as a cause or result of a look, a tone, or snide remark. Raymond Chandler is s master of this. Detailed descriptions of a room, a desk, a face, are iconic: the perceptive awareness of an accomplished private eye like Philip Marlow, Chandler’s alter-ego. He sees everything, even the clues that a reader might miss. There is no psychological self-examination except for the odd purple passage of self-depreciation. There is no romance but more than a hint of the romantic hero, especially in The High Window, where he rescues a damsel in distress, but not from anything as corny as a caped villain, but more from her own self-delusion, bad choices, and shallow vulnerability. Marlow is a good guy, mistrusted but tolerated by the police, hired but not liked by his clients. He’s a loner but his apartment, and especially his kitchen, are neat and clean, unlike his talk to women he doesn’t trust…

“I don’t like this house or you or the air of repression in the joint, or the squeezed down face of the little girl of that twerp of a son you have, or this case, or the truth I’m not told about it and the lies I am told about it and …”

It would be fair to say that this is a minor Chandler; the plot lacks the sensationalism that popular crime fiction has come to nurture, even though it has been filmed twice in the 1940s but neither was a success. It is, however, classic Chandler, all the more enjoyable for the wise-cracking, plain-speaking, and indifferent, but work-man-like Marlow, who would never slap a woman; but then why would he when his wit and words are far more effective.

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The Brasher Doubloon, the 1947 film version starring George Montgomery

Chandler, although born in the USA in Chicago in 1888, was raised and educated in England, becoming a British subject in 1907 but returned to America when he was 30. He lost his job as an oil executive in the Great Depression and turned to pulp fiction, studying the Perry Mason novels of Erle Stanley Gardner. The Big Sleep was his first published novel and featured for the first time, Philip Marlow. The High Window is the third in the Marlow series.

You can read The High Window as an ebook here at the Canadian site of Project Gutenburg. In Canada it is in the public domain. You can only download it for free if it is out of copyright in your country.