Today I’m reviewing a novel (well, sort of two) by a very well-known author whom I hadn’t read before. It was about time!
Moonflower Murders: A Novel (Magpie Murders Book 2)by Anthony Horowitz
Featuring his famous literary detective Atticus Pund and Susan Ryeland, hero of the worldwide bestseller Magpie Murders, a brilliantly complex literary thriller with echoes of Agatha Christie from New York Times bestselling author Anthony Horowitz.
Retired publisher Susan Ryeland is living the good life. She is running a small hotel on a Greek island with her long-term boyfriend Andreas. It should be everything she’s always wanted. But is it? She’s exhausted with the responsibilities of making everything work on an island where nothing ever does, and truth be told she’s beginning to miss London.
And then the Trehearnes come to stay. The strange and mysterious story they tell, about an unfortunate murder that took place on the same day and in the same hotel in which their daughter was married—a picturesque inn on the Suffolk coast named Farlingaye Hall—fascinates Susan and piques her editor’s instincts.
One of her former writers, the late Alan Conway, author of the fictional Magpie Murders, knew the murder victim—an advertising executive named Frank Parris—and once visited Farlingaye Hall. Conway based the third book in his detective series, Atticus Pünd Takes the Case, on that very crime.
The Trehearne’s, daughter, Cecily, read Conway’s mystery and believed the book proves that the man convicted of Parris’s murder—a Romanian immigrant who was the hotel’s handyman—is innocent. When the Trehearnes reveal that Cecily is now missing, Susan knows that she must return to England and find out what really happened.
Brilliantly clever, relentlessly suspenseful, full of twists that will keep readers guessing with each revelation and clue, Moonflower Murders is a deviously dark take on vintage English crime fiction from one of its greatest masterminds, Anthony Horowitz.
About the author:
Anthony Horowitz’s life might have been copied from the pages of Charles Dickens or the Brothers Grimm. Born in 1956 in Stanmore, Middlesex, to a family of wealth and status, Anthony was raised by nannies, surrounded by servants and chauffeurs. His father, a wealthy businessman, was, says Mr. Horowitz, “a fixer for Harold Wilson.” What that means exactly is unclear — “My father was a very secretive man,” he says– so an aura of suspicion and mystery surrounds both the word and the man. As unlikely as it might seem, Anthony’s father, threatened with bankruptcy, withdrew all of his money from Swiss bank accounts in Zurich and deposited it in another account under a false name and then promptly died. His mother searched unsuccessfully for years in attempt to find the money, but it was never found. That too shaped Anthony’s view of things. Today he says, “I think the only thing to do with money is spend it.” His mother, whom he adored, eccentrically gave him a human skull for his 13th birthday. His grandmother, another Dickensian character, was mean-spirited and malevolent, a destructive force in his life. She was, he says, “a truly evil person”, his first and worst arch villain. “My sister and I danced on her grave when she died,” he now recalls.
A miserably unhappy and overweight child, Anthony had nowhere to turn for solace. “Family meals,” he recalls, “had calories running into the thousands. I was an astoundingly large, round child.” At the age of eight he was sent off to boarding school, a standard practice of the times and class in which he was raised. While being away from home came as an enormous relief, the school itself, Orley Farm, was a grand guignol horror with a headmaster who flogged the boys till they bled. “Once the headmaster told me to stand up in assembly and in front of the whole school said, ‘This boy is so stupid he will not be coming to Christmas games tomorrow.’ I have never totally recovered.” To relieve his misery and that of the other boys, he not unsurprisingly made up tales of astounding revenge and retribution.
Anthony Horowitz is perhaps the busiest writer in England. He has been writing since the age of eight, and professionally since the age of twenty. He writes in a comfortable shed in his garden for up to ten hours per day. In addition to the highly successful Alex Rider books, he has also written episodes of several popular TV crime series, including Poirot, Murder in Mind, Midsomer Murders and Murder Most Horrid. He has written a television series Foyle’s War, which recently aired in the United States, and he has written the libretto of a Broadway musical adapted from Dr. Seuss’s book, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. His film script The Gathering has just finished production. And&oh yes&there are more Alex Rider novels in the works. Anthony has also written the Diamond Brothers series.
I received an ARC copy of this book from Cornerstone (Random House UK) through NetGalley that I freely chose to review. I thank them for this opportunity.
Yes, oh, yes, I’d heard of Anthony Horowitz (I love his biography!), and I’ve watched adaptations (and episodes, I’m sure) of his work on TV but had never read any of his novels. When I came across this one on NetGalley I thought the time had come. I love owls, and although the final cover doesn’t have an owl on it (if they don’t change it, the cover of the audio version does), the ARC copy did, and that was another good reason. (There is an owl in the book, yes. Well, sort of). And now I know why he is so popular. This is the second novel featuring Susan Ryeland and although I can’t compare them because I haven’t read the first one, Magpie Murders, I can confirm that this novel can be read as a standalone, although there are plenty of references to the first one.
I didn’t know what to expect, not having read the first novel, and although the initial premise of how Susan gets involved in the investigation is a bit thin, once you accept it (and any of us who are interested in books, as readers, writers, editors, collectors… will be quite intrigued by the concept), you are in for a pretty amusing ride. There is a book within a book, and you get two mystery novels for the price of one. And both are pretty good. The book at the centre of Susan’s inquiry, Atticus Pünd Takes the Case, is a classic mystery set in the 1950s in the UK (in Dorset), written by one of Susan’s clients, Alan Conway, who was also, it seems, central to the previous novel. Although we start by getting to know the characters of the current case (the main story is set in contemporary times although it goes back a few years to a murder committed at the hotel that takes centre stage in the plot), at some point, Susan starts reading Alan’s novel, as it seems to contain a crucial clue to the disappearance of Cecily, the young woman who has gone missing. And we get the novel in full, so we are in the same position as Susan, or almost, as she was the editor of the story and knew the writer quite well (although perhaps not as well as she imagined). She knew of his delight in creating puzzles, including all kinds of anagrams and secret clues inside of his books, where “everything” might have a hidden meaning. In some ways, it is as if we were reading over her shoulder, in the same way as we follow her around during her investigation.
One of the main achievements of the book is that both mysteries are engaging and work well in their own right. Atticus Pünd Takes the Case is written in the third person, mostly from the investigator’s point of view but not exclusively, and readers of classic mysteries will soon recognise many features and make comparisons with other well-known detectives (he is a foreigner, in this case, German, he is very intelligent although not overbearing, and we get a good sample of a variety of characters, red herrings, motives, secrets, twists, and turns). The main case, which frames the classic mystery, is written in the first person by Susan, whom we meet at a difficult time in her life, when she’s been living in Crete long enough for it to lose some of its shine, and she is wondering if she made the right decision leaving her life in the UK behind, so she jumps at the chance of going back to England and making some money. As you will imagine, she gets more than she bargained for.
I won’t go into detail about the ins and outs of both plots. There are also too many characters to go through, but one of the joys is that Alan Conway used some of the real people as inspiration for the characters in his book, so it’s impossible not to keep looking for similarities and differences as we read. I liked Susan. She is not a typical detective, and she keeps questioning herself as to why she is doing what she is doing. She does suffer badly from impostor syndrome, and a bit like Pünd himself, she wonders if she has not caused more harm than good with her intervention. As I mentioned before, readers, writers, and anybody who has ever edited or corrected a book will particularly enjoy this novel, as there is plenty of discussion as to the process of publishing a book, what is involved, the decisions people make, and how obsessed one can become with what seem to be minor details (but are fundamental to this genre). This is metafiction in action, and I enjoyed it immensely. And I liked Pünd as well. Although we don’t get to know him as closely as we do Susan, there are glimpses of the man behind the brain, and it is a fully-fleshed character.
Regarding the motives and themes featured in the novels, there is nothing terribly original or unexpected here, and there is a familiarity that readers of the genre will appreciate. It’s well done, that’s for sure, but there is nothing there that will keep any of us awake at night or will bring new insight into any important subjects. That is not the book’s aim, either, and, as I said, it provides good solid entertainment, although it won’t work for people looking for hard-edge crime stories or police procedurals heavy on the scientific side of things. On the other hand, I can easily imagine it as a good TV series, and I would be more than happy to watch it.
The writing is fluid, with enough details of the settings and characters to allow us to get a clear picture in our minds without getting in the way of the story. There are stylistic differences between the two novels that make it easy to know what we are reading, although I recommend readers to try to set aside a good chunk of time to read it, as otherwise due to the sheer number of them, the characters and details of both cases can easily get confused. And, keep your wits about you and pay attention as you read. The pace is not frantic, and you do get time to think, but the clues keep coming and there are enough twists and turns to get one’s head spinning.
Both endings are good and they mirror each other in a pretty satisfying way. Did I guess? I guessed the solution to one of the cases, more or less, (I won’t say which one), but there are so many things to pick on and so many clues to analyse, that it can keep readers busy for quite a while.
My first read of one of Horowitz’s books was very enjoyable. He has many fans, and although some preferred the first one in this series (that I now feel quite curious about, and although there are plenty of references to it in this book, I expect to enjoy nonetheless), others thought this one was better. I recommend it to people who love mysteries, in particular classic mysteries, and although some of the subtext and side-themes are slightly dark, the book is not explicit or violent either (there is a bloody nose and some scary moments, but not much else), so I think it will suit most readers of the genre. If you want two mysteries for the price of one and a book that will keep you engaged and entertained and help you forget about 2020, I recommend it. A great read.