One for sorrow, or, How not to be derivative

Deconstructed lemon meringue pie - Why??
Usually when a reviewer says that a writer is derivative, they mean that the book's not that good - it's trying to be like the author they want to be, but it doesn't work (a bit like deconstructed Lemon Meringue Pie, I mean "Why??"). "Influenced by" is usually ok, you can see who the author's literary heroes are, but they're still going their own way too, but derivative, nope, doesn't work.

Anthony Horowitz is an interesting writer. His writing career until fairly recently was largely based in TV work - he's adapted Poirot for the small screen, brought Midsomer Murders to the masses, adapting Caroline Graham's Inspector Barnaby series from the novels, he later kept to the spirit of Midsomer, while originating new ideas. He also created Foyle's War.

His literary career spanned a long series of books about junior James Bond character, Alex Rider, aimed at the juvenile market; and he has since been commissioned to write two brilliant Sherlock Holmes follow-ups The House of Silk and Moriarty (both previously reviewed on Bookhound), and a Bond follow-up by the Fleming estate - Trigger Mortis. All of which is vitally important in his latest novel, the very wonderful, incredibly derivative, and wholly different (yes, I didn't know it was possible to be both before) Magpie Murders.

Magpie Murders features a murder within a murder. Susan Ryeland is a literary editor at a small publishing house. Her star author is Alan Conway, the writer of a series of popular "cosy crime" murder mysteries a la Agatha Christie. His hero is Atticus Pund, a German detective, who happens to act rather like Poirot (he also has the obligatory nice but dumb side-kick), and, like Poirot in Curtain, suffers from a terminal illness. Susan receives Conway's latest novel (apparently the last in the series) and spends the weekend reading it, only to discover that the vital last chapter is missing, and absolutely anyone could have committed the crime. (Even I, who am normally pretty good at guessing the villain very early on didn't guess this one, though I really should have - as Conway's work is delightfully derivative. Aficionados of crime novels will have great fun spotting the Christie references, along with the odd bit of Ngaio Marsh, P.D. James et al.)

Shortly after finishing her read, Ryeland discovers that Conway himself is dead, apparently having committed suicide after a terminal diagnosis. On the hunt for the missing chapter though, Ryeland becomes more and more convinced that Conway's precipitation from the tower of his home was not suicide but murder. But who hated Conway enough to kill him? In superb Christie style the suspects are lined up, but Ryeland is going to get a nasty shock before the murderer is unmasked.

I think what's truly delightful is the way that Horowitz plays with his readers. Lots of nods and winks to the other mystery writers that they (and evidently he) love, a deliciously wicked look at the world of publishing and the (metaphorical) stabs in the back within it, some great plotting, and not just one, but two crimes for your money.

There is also some musing behind the philosophy of the murder mystery, what attracts its many readers to the form, the inspirations that lie behind many a writer (this fits rather nicely with my current read Passenger to Frankfurt by Agatha Christie, which includes a preface that I'm sure Horowitz must have read - "The first question put to an 'Where do you get your ideas from?' The temptation is great to reply: 'I always go to Harrods....'") and, of course, in best Christie and Shakespeare style journeys usually end in lovers meeting.

Horowitz also deals with the author who hates his creation. Having provided follow-up novels for both the Sherlock Holmes and James Bond canon, he is well aware both of the rewards of creating a successful literary character, and the potential pitfalls. How do you break away from the character that has brought you money, but little literary joy. It's an interesting concept and one guaranteed to get any fan of Poirot, Holmes etc thinking.

I thought Magpie Murders was a smashing read, one guaranteed to be devoured by any fan of crime fiction. It works brilliantly as a murder mystery, but is also a cynical, and at times blackly comic tale of the world of popular fiction, and the pressures it can bring to bear on an apparently successful author. All this, and an interview with the great Alan Conway too, what more could a crime lover want?


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