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Patrick's Book Club: Magpie Murders
A whodunnit inside of a whodunnit (inside of a whodunnit?)
Last week was my monthly book club, and we discussed Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz.
Magpie Murders Review
Magpie Murders is a murder mystery. Inside of a murder mystery. A glass onion if you will. The book begins in the first person, with a London-based editor named Susan Ryeland telling the reader that you (the reader) are about to read a book that changed her (Susan’s) life. This covers pages 1-4. Page 5 is then a title page of a book called “Magpie Murders: An Atticus Pünd Mystery”, a fictional book-within-a-book by a fictional author, Alan Conway. The following pages follow just like a normal book does. There’s an “about the author”, beaming reviews, etc. The next 200+ pages are a murder mystery set in 1950s England. The rest of the book switches several times between the present-day world of Susan Ryeland and the book-within-a-book about Atticus Pünd. Both the Pünd story and the Ryeland story have a murder.
I found the structure of Magpie Murders to be original (novel, if you will), but somewhat frustrating. First, the page numbers run separately for the Pünd mystery and the Ryeland mystery. So page 25 could refer to page 25 of the Pünd mystery, roughly page 30 of the physical book I turned the pages of, or page 25 of the Ryeland mystery, roughly page 240 of the physical book. Additionally, both the Pünd mystery and the Ryeland mystery have a cast of characters who could be the murderer in their respective reality. Confused yet?
From reading reviews and comments online, I got the feeling Magpie Murders pays homage to previous murder mystery novels. I’ve read several by Agatha Christie, but overall murder mysteries are largely unfamiliar to me. I probably missed more than a few Easter eggs and callbacks that fans of the genre will understand. I think both stories are fun to read - I truly cared who the murderer was in both the Pünd story and Ryeland story. But I found the structure to be a turnoff; why do I want to read 200+ pages and learn about characters and motives and clues when I’m going to have to do the whole thing again within the same book?
I also thought there were a lot of deeper-level questions that the book could have explored in Ryeland half of the story but didn’t. Horowitz (the real-life author of both stories) does a great job introducing possible quandaries all fiction authors and readers go through, but then never explores them. For example, what debt does an author owe their inspirations? When is it ok for an author to steal real people’s stories and personalities for their books, and when isn’t it? What happens when an author has an unhealthy relationship with their characters? How does a reader separate the artist from the art? Many of the characters in the Ryeland section of the book work in the publishing industry, yet none of these questions are ever discussed. Given that Horowitz may himself be dealing with some of the same issues as his fictional author Alan Conway this surprised me.
Magpie Murder Book Club Review
Because this is essentially two books in one, you would think that there would be plenty to talk about in book club. To the contrary, however, our group found that discussing the book wasn’t all that interesting. As I mentioned above, it was hard to keep the characters straight. It's never a good sign when no one in the group can remember the name of the protagonist, and that was the case with Susan Ryeland. We enjoyed talking about the structure of the book and why it worked, but there wasn’t a ton to discuss on a deeper level.
The lack of character depth contributed a lot to this. The characters in the book-within-a-book are deliberately simplistic. It’s meant to be a boilerplate murder mystery without characters full of nuance and complexity. Thus, that limited the discussion. There was also a general consensus that the female characters in the book are not always well written, something that hadn’t occurred to me beforehand but I agree with. Susan Ryeland specifically shows an unrealistic naivety at a key moment that had everyone groaning.
Instead, we spent a lot of time relating Magpie Murders to other works. That included the obvious Agatha Christie classics, but we also discussed novels by many different authors, the rise of true-crime podcasts, and of course Knives Out. People enjoyed comparing the narrative structure of Magpie Murders to other books and media but didn’t seem that interested in discussing the book in a vacuum.
So is Magpie Murders a good or bad book for a book club? Frankly, it’s hard to say. Despite the unique structure and cast of characters, there isn’t a ton to say about the novel as a stand-alone work. On the other hand, because it’s easy to relate the book to a lot of other media, we could have sat and comparing/contrasting all night. So it made for a very delightful discussion, but not one that I traditionally think of when I imagine a book club.
Book Grade: C
Book Club Grade: B-