Anthony Horowitz's pedigree as a writer of period detective tales is unimpeachable, as the legions of fans Foyle's War would be happy to tell you. So it was hardly a shock that he proved adept at writing a fine golden age mystery in the first half of Magpie Murders.
This 'Atticus Pund mystery', however, is a novel within a novel, the unfinished final volume in a series written by novelist Alan Conway. The novel is being read by Susan Ryeland, Conway's editor in London. The second half of Magpie Murders follows Susan's attempts to find out not only whodunnit in the fictional novel but also whether or not the untimely death of Conway is indeed the suicide reported or whether somebody 'dunthat' also, and if so, who?
For a few pages as the novel turns from the 1955 Atticus Pund narrative to the modern day and Susan's consternation at finding the book unfinished, I wondered whether or not Horowitz was being just too clever for his own good. The doubt quickly passed, however, and was replaced by the sheer joy of two classic mysteries, investigated by two quite different detectives.
Atticus Pund, a former concentration camp inmate, operates with a quiet German efficiency, a minimum of fuss and a great deal of what his famous Belgian peer might describe as 'the little grey cells'. Susan, on the other hand, puts to use the little investigative experience she has (editing Pund novels) in far more chaotic fashion.
Both stories are handled beautifully. In 1955 Saxby-on-Avon, Horowitz creates the perfect scene for an English murder, with an entertaining if somewhat familiar cast of characters from the vicar's wife to the over-bearing Lord of the Manor to the ne'er do well mechanic set against the backdrop of the tea shop rural idyll. A second similar but more modern cast is assembled around the Ryeland investigation with its focus around the tempting twin targets of the publishing industry and the public school.
What makes the pages fly past is that Horowitz is just such a fluent, attractive writer delivering smooth prose and convincing dialogue. And naturally, he build his narrative towards a perfectly judged, thoroughly recognisable, dramatic ending. And in this instance the familiar brings comfort and pleasure. A lovely idea, wonderfully executed.