Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders a compendium of dark delights

Declan Hughes on the welcome revival of the traditional mystery in crime fiction

Douglas Henshall as Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez in BBC TV’s adaptation of Shetland by Ann Cleeves.

Douglas Henshall as Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez in BBC TV’s adaptation of Shetland by Ann Cleeves.

 

One of the more notable trends in recent crime fiction has been the revival of interest in what might be called the traditional mystery.

Fifteen years ago, Golden Age authors such as Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham were often dismissed as ‘cosy’, and the writers who chose to follow in their footsteps found themselves neglected (that many of them were women probably goes without saying).

Now, on screen, in print and with Sophie Hannah writing new Poirot titles, Christie is as popular as ever, and the British Library is enjoying remarkable success with its series of Crime Classic reprints; the distinction between hard-boiled and cosy no longer seems as persuasive or useful as it did.

Anthony Horowitz’s new novel, Magpie Murders (Orion, £19.99) is at once a brilliant pastiche of the English village mystery and a hugely enjoyable tale of avarice and skulduggery in the world of publishing.

Editor Susan Ryeland settles down on a wet August evening to read the manuscript of Alan Conway’s ninth Atticus Pünd novel. Conway’s bestselling series is central to the survival of Cloverleaf Books, so when she finds that the last chapter of the new mystery is missing, she is frustrated (and after 219 pages, so are we). Frustration turns to panic when Conway’s body is found.

Ryeland refuses to believe the official verdict of suicide and turns sleuth to find the truth. The crucial thing about Magpie Murders is that the pastiche mystery itself is superb and could happily stand alone; that it contains within it clues to help Ryeland solve the real life murder is a testament to Horowitz’s fiendish ingenuity.

Crammed with backstage gossip and insights aplenty into the unscrupulous behaviour of authors and editors and a stunning jeremiad delivered by a detective on the irresponsible and harmful lack of realism in detective fiction, Magpie Murders is a compendium of dark delights.

Cold Earth (Macmillan, £16.99) is the seventh in Ann Cleeves’ absorbing Shetland-set series featuring Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez (portrayed by Douglas Henshall in a first-rate BBC adaptation that, were it Swedish, would be heralded around the world). At the burial of Perez’s friend Magnus Tait in the sodden Shetland mid-winter, a landslide crashes down through a nearby croft house. In the wreckage is found the body of a dark-haired woman in a red dress whom no one can identify; it soon emerges that she was murdered before the croft was destroyed.

A key feature of the best crime writing is a vivid sense of place, and Cleeves gives us Shetland in all its rugged, rain-swept splendour, an island where if everyone doesn’t know everyone else, it’s only a matter of time.

Plotted mystery

Melancholy DI Perez has an attractively haphazard method and manner, as if he’s edging sideways into the case, and indeed, into his own life.

At the centre of this adroitly plotted mystery there’s an acutely observed and affecting portrayal of Jane Hay, a recovering alcoholic in midlife, bewildered and dismayed by her family and in mourning for the intense life, however chaotic, that she can no longer lead.

Like military intelligence, the term ‘retired detective’ invariably undermines itself. In Louise Penny’s A Great Reckoning (Sphere, £19.99), former chief inspector Armand Gamache has a new role as commander of the Sûreté Academy, and a new purpose: to reform it from within.

But when one of his targets, the corrupt and sinister Serge Leduc, is found murdered, suspicion first falls on a troubled young cadet Gamache personally selected, pierced and tattooed Amelia Choquet, and then on Gamache himself.

With an old map of Three Pines linking back to the village boys who never returned from the first World War, A Great Reckoning is a spellbinding display of Penny’s technical wizardry.

Penny’s stock company of characters is as entertaining as ever here: foul-mouthed old poet Ruth Zardo plays an unexpectedly benign role, and there’s a nice cameo from painter Clara Morrow charting the mysterious progress of her self-portrait.

But for all the light and charm of Three Pines, this is a powerful novel about human frailty, betrayal and the possibility of redemption, and the final pages are deeply moving. Louise Penny has raised the village mystery to exalted heights; I find her books irresistible.

“Tears are an everyday occurrence in her life; she has wept every day since she went mad.” This line, from the first page of Pierre Lemaitre’s Blood Wedding (MacLehose, £12.99), gives a good indication of what we lies ahead: a pacy, disturbing noir tale (Sophie wakes to find the six year-old boy she was minding strangled; when she flees the scene and a woman gives her shelter, Sophie leaves her stabbed to death) told in crisp, distant, almost ironic prose (Frank Wynne provides the excellent translation).

When we see Sophie murder her abusive boss, it starts to seem like there is no mystery, just a catalogue of horrors, but then another narrator takes over, and what ensues is gaslighting on an epic scale. Blood Wedding is agonisingly suspenseful and at times almost unbearably cruel, but it twists and turns with grace and verve to reach a blistering conclusion.

Last year, writing here of Margaret Millar, I said that she deserved an anthology of her own; mirabile dictu, Syndicate Books have undertaken to reprint her entire back catalogue over the course of the next six months.

The Master at her Zenith and Legendary Novels of Suspense are available now (£14.60 each) and between them contain some of her greatest work, including How Like an Angel, A Stranger in My Grave, An Air That Kills and The Listening Walls.

More so than Patricia Highsmith, Millar was the most accomplished pioneer of the psychological thriller or novel of domestic suspense.

She wrote with uncanny insight about women on the verge of all manner of emotional and mental distress; she was meticulously attentive to class, race and sexual manners; she had a way with yearning, romantic men and a bracing, astringent attitude toward the vanities and self-deceptions of her own sex.

She could also be very funny, with a dry wit worthy of Jane Austen. Her books have remained largely out of print for the last 20 years; Syndicate are to be commended for reintroducing this great American novelist to the reading public.

Declan Hughes is a novelist and playwright.

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