Books Chapter & Verse

'Magpie Murders' author Anthony Horowitz delivers remarkable twist on the classic whodunnit

The bestselling British author and screenwriter is making his own bid for detective story immortality with an astonishing Golden Age-style mystery novel.

'Magpie Murders' is by Anthony Horowitz.
Caption
  • Randy Dotinga

Agatha Christie set the standard for landmark plot twists. In one book, the narrator did it. In another, everyone did it. A third novel reveals a child to be the killer.

Now, a bestselling British author and screenwriter is making his own bid for detective story immortality with an astonishing Golden Age-style mystery novel. Well, make that two novels.

Much of Anthony Horowitz's captivating new book Magpie Murders is devoted to a peculiar foreign detective who wanders around the UK solving murders after World War II. If something tells you this scenario sounds mighty familiar, that's exactly the point.

But another plot runs through "Magpie Murders," this one about a murder in our own time. The victim is a prominent person involved in the production of a novel called ... "Magpie Murders." It all makes for a maddening, challenging, endlessly engrossing whodunnit times two.

In an interview with the Monitor, Horowitz talks about his appreciation for classic mysteries, the ways that real-life people inspire his characters (especially those who get knocked off), and the peculiar phenomenon that turns mild-mannered readers into rabid consumers of fictional mayhem.

Q: What do you love about Agatha Christie?

Her genius was in her construction, how she'd turn a whodunnit into a real work of art. The joy of it is that when you get to the end, you're not angry. Even if you haven't guessed the ending, you feel satisfied. She played fair, everything worked. It had a shape, a precision, an accuracy.

Obviously, it's a challenge to be as good in Christie, and I'm not saying I am. But I'm in a good place to write something that aspires to be as good as them because I worked in television and analyzed them, reconstructed them.

Q: What about some of the benefits of writing in the Golden Age style?

It's a slower world that allows people more time to relate to each other. You can think more about character, relationships, and emotion and less about forensics and profiling.

And the village is a wonderful microcosm. Everybody knows everybody, and all these vices and foibles are given time to cultivate and grow.

Q: What inspired you to throw in the modern twist?

You've got to come up with things that are new, break the envelope a bit, give readers something they haven't had before. I'm 62, and I don't have time left to imitate, to be unoriginal. The excitement of writing and – of reading – is stuff that's nobody done before.

Q: "Magpie Murders" features an author who loves to create barely veiled characters based on real people he knows. Do you do that yourself?

All authors use people around them and people they meet. I've certainly used people I know carefully, anonymously, and discreetly.

From the ages of 8-13, I had horrible teachers. I have put every single one of them into my books over the years, and I've killed every single one of them.
I also remember seeing this horrible, obnoxious man in a hotel. I thought wow, he'd be a great character to be murdered, and a year later he was on the screen in an episode of "Midsomer Murders."

Q: One of the characters in "Magpie Murders" despises the modern fascination with murder in fiction and on screen. He thinks it glamorizes a horrific, ugly business. You've produced plenty of mayhem in print and on screen without the grit and gore of real-life killings, the kind of works that draw the stereotypical little-old-lady mystery fan. What do you think?

Murder is horrible. I've been working with a young man who committed murder for real, helping him understand why it's unconscionable, it's disgusting.

But there's this distinction. Things that horrify us in real life can be amusing in fiction, and authors like Agatha Christie make murder elegant.

I'm interested in the transformation of murder in the work of Charles Dickens or Shakespeare, how it suddenly becomes interesting in a way that you can even admire the person who performs the crime.

Q: Do you have a favorite whodunnit?

"Cards on the Table," by Agatha Christie. It's about a man who plays bridge with 4 suspected murderers, and then he is murdered.

It's a minimalist Poirot mystery with only 4 suspects, but she still holds you.

Q: What's next for you?

It's a book that I hope is the beginning of a long series about a detective named Hawthorne who's been fired for reasons that are not clear. The book redefines the relationship between the detective, the author, and the sidekick. I've taken that triangle and reshaped it, done something that nobody else has done to solve a series of whodunnits.