Three years ago, author-screenwriter Anthony Horowitz’s Golden Age-style whodunit, Magpie Murders, won critical applause on both sides of the Atlantic. And not without ample justification.
The novel introduced us to Susan Ryeland, one of the editors at a minor London publishing house, who was busily working her way through the manuscript of the ninth, and apparently concluding, entry in author Alan Conway’s best-selling mystery series starring Atticus Pünd, a 65-year-old half-Greek, half-German concentration camp survivor who, after World War II, established himself in London under a private investigator’s shingle. Conway’s twisted yarn was set in 1955, in a fictional English village where Mary Blakiston, a domineering woman with many years behind her as the housekeeper at the ancestral abode of Sir Magnus Pye, had just met her demise upon a staircase. Gossip spread that Blakiston’s “accident” was no such thing at all, but rather a homicide perpetrated by her rebellious son, Robert. It was Robert’s fiancée who sought Pünd’s assistance in putting such injurious imputations to rest. As Conway’s story continued, his Hercule Poirot-esque sleuth unearthed motives, clues and suspects galore. However, before Pünd could unmask the killer (or killers?), the manuscript … abruptly ended. Horowitz’s story line then bounced back to the present day, where we found editor Ryeland trying to locate the book’s missing chapters. Her hunt hit a daunting roadblock when Conway suddenly committed suicide, but it was made more intriguing by the parallels she soon discovered between the author’s life and the plot of his valedictory work.
Playful, poignant on occasion and boasting an intricately knotted scenario, Magpie Murders wound up on more than a few “favorite crime novels of the year” lists in 2017. However, everybody—including its author—assumed that would be the last readers heard of Ryeland, Conway or the finicky Pünd.
“It was never my intention to write a sequel to Magpie Murders,” Horowitz has said. “But following the success of that book, my UK publisher asked me to consider it. The truth is that I loved writing Magpie and thought I had stumbled onto a unique formula: a modern mystery informed by a Golden Age detective story.”
Horowitz deploys that formula once more in Moonflower Murders, which was released in Great Britain in August by Century and in the States this month by Harper. In these pages we’re returned to the company of Susan Ryeland, now 48 years old and living with her partner, Andreas Patakis, on the Greek island of Crete. There they run an ill-starred, 12-room inn called the Polydorus, a place that boasts “perfect views” and a loyal clientele of Mediterranean travelers, but is plagued by “dodgy wiring, impossible plumbing and intermittent Wi-Fi.” Although she loves swimming in the sea, dining out in quaint tavernas, and learning the Greek language, Ryeland concedes that the experience has, in total, been more enervating than enrapturing. She explains early on:
For the most part our guests seemed happy. But we were running about like actors in one of those madcap French farces trying to make it all look seamless and by the time I collapsed into bed, often at one or two in the morning, I was so exhausted that I lay there feeling almost desiccated, like a mummy in a shroud. That was when I would be at my lowest, falling asleep with the knowledge that the moment I opened my eyes the whole thing would start all over again.
So when Lawrence and Pauline Treherne, the elderly owners of Branlow Hall, an upscale hotel in Suffolk (“something between a country house, a castle and a French chateau”), request that she return to England and—for the sum of £10,000—help retrieve their missing daughter, Cecily, Susan can hardly pack fast enough.
It seems Cecily vanished shortly after telling her parents that the late Alan Conway’s third mystery novel, Atticus Pünd Takes the Case, contains a clue proving the innocence of Stefan Codrescu, the Romanian maintenance man who was convicted of bludgeoning a Branlow guest, advertising man Frank Parris, eight years earlier, on the day of Cecily’s wedding. Conway had, in fact, visited Branlow in the aftermath of Parris’ murder, and found there the inspiration for Atticus Pünd Takes the Case, though Conway’s novel—the 224-page entirety of which is dropped in about halfway through Moonflower Murders—does not simply recast Parris’ slaying as fiction. Instead, it’s a classic country-house mystery concerning the strangling death of Melissa James, an aging Hollywood actress who has resettled in England, purchased a house and invested in a small hotel, and managed to draw trouble down upon herself. Although some of Conway’s players were obviously based on people associated with Branlow Hall, his plot’s similarities to Parris’ killing are less obvious.
The longer she’s back in Great Britain, the more frustrated Ryeland becomes with her investigation. She feels guilty about having left Andreas exclusively responsible for the Polydorus; and while her on-site probing manages to stir up resentment from Cecily’s sister, Lisa, who’s responsible for keeping the Branlow’s accounts, it unearths precious little information needed to solve the multiple puzzles surrounding Parris’ extermination and Cecily’s recent disappearance. What eventually proves crucial in resolving this case, ascertaining the literary evidence that only Cecily had spotted and establishing an unexpected connection between Alan Conway and Frank Parris, is Ryeland’s familiarity with Conway’s fondness for anagrams and for hiding revealing messages in his text. No little detective work that, leading to an “ah-ha” moment so familiar to fans of classic sleuthing fiction.
After years spent formulating scripts for UK TV crime series such as Midsommer Murders and Foyle’s War, Horowitz gained wider public attention by authoring the Alex Rider young-adult spy/adventure series. He was later asked by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate to pen a Sherlock Holmes novel, which became House of Silk (2011). He followed that with the related historical thriller Moriarty (2014), plus a pair of delightfully faithful James Bond novels—Trigger Mortis (2015) and Forever and a Day (2018). More recently, Horowitz has concocted a couple of mysteries (2017’s The Word Is Murder and 2018’s The Sentence Is Death) featuring Daniel Hawthorne, a quite unlikable outside contractor with London’s Metropolitan Police Force, who solves cases in company with a fictionalized version of Horowitz himself. Through all of this, Horowitz has demonstrated both remarkable plotting ingenuity and dexterity in adopting the techniques and tropes devised by others. It’s no wonder he chose to try his hand at Agatha Christie-like storytelling, or that he’s excelled at the task.
Moonflower Murders isn’t free of minor flaws. The pacing of its first 227 pages, before Ryeland begins re-reading Conway’s third novel, is a tad slow and deliberate on occasion. Knowing that there’s information related to Parris’ fate secreted somewhere in Atticus Pünd Takes the Case made me concentrate too closely on the architecture of that novel-within-a-novel, and not fully give myself over to its quaint pleasures. And this story’s dénouement, in which Ryeland reconstructs the circumstances around Parris’ murder and the motivations behind it was as jam-packed with unexpected revelations as the end of Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles. I, for one, would have preferred that some of those disclosures had been dribbled out over the course of the tale, rather than delivered in fire hose fashion all at once.
Readers who have already enjoyed Magpie Murders will be best-placed to understand the relationship between Ryeland and Conway in Moonflower Murders, and the intricacies of Atticus Pünd’s character. But it isn’t absolutely necessary that you’ve read the first book before tackling this sequel.
Horowitz’s flawed but congenial protagonist, his use of the story-within-a-story formulation, and his fair-play blend of red herrings and tip-offs make Moonflower Murders almost as spellbinding as its predecessor. ◊
(Editor’s note: To learn more about author Horowitz and his writing of the Susan Ryeland whodunits, listen to his interview with Nancie Clare at Speaking of Mysteries.)