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Literature / Magpie Murders

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Magpie Murders is a 2016 mystery novel by Anthony Horowitz. A work of Meta Fiction, it is actually two Fair-Play Whodunnits in one. The plot concerns a London-based editor named Susan Ryeland who is given the manuscript of best-selling mystery writer Alan Conway's latest novel, Magpie Murders. Like Conway's other books, it is a pastiche of Agatha Christie's Poirot novels, featuring quirky detective Atticus Pünd as he solves a murder in a sleepy English countryside village where nothing is as it seems.

The original UK cover
But as Susan nears the end of the book, she finds that the final chapter is missing and Conway himself has died under mysterious circumstances. However, she has reason to believe that he himself may have been murdered and sets out to discover Whodunnit. Along the way, she begins to realize that the characters in Conway's novel are heavily based on people he knew in real life, especially those who may have wanted him dead...

As a hybrid of classic detective fiction and modern-day murder mysteries, it is especially Troperiffic, and plays with or subverts innumerable tropes found in each type of mystery.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Animal Motifs: All the suspects in the titular book are named after birds: Robin and Henrietta Osbourne, Emily Redwing, the Weaver family, Magnus Pye...the sole exception is Doctor Edgar Rennard, since Renard is French for fox. He's innocent of any murder, however, and his crime- a relatively minor act of fraud, done under coercion- fills him with guilt.
  • Asshole Victim: Both the murder victim in Conway's novel, Sir Magnus Pye, and Conway himself. Fitting, given that Conway based Pye on himself.
    • Conway in particular was a spectacularly-massive Jerkass, so much that those in the publishing industry don't really mind that Charles killed him and are more pissed at Susan for exposing his misdeeds. The novel ends with Susan wishing she had killed Conway herself.
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    • In the novel-within-a-novel, Mary Blakiston fits this trope even though her death really was just an accident, no one murdered her.
  • Author Appeal: In-Universe. Conway fills his books with little Easter Eggs for himself, like certain character naming conventions, and writes portrays characters based on people he knows in ways that amuse him, such as having his boyfriend James Taylor be "James Fraser," Pünd's dim-witted assistant.
  • Beneath Suspicion: The murderers in both plotlines fall into this category. Sir Magnus had treated Robert Blakiston very well over the years and had even arranged for him to get a job, but ultimately Robert killed him because it was the only way to prevent the truth about him murdering his younger brother as a child from coming out.
    • Finally, Charles Clover didn't appear to have any motive for killing his best-selling author Alan Conway, but Conway was going to die anyway of cancer and was about to reveal to the world that "Atticus Pünd" was actually an anagram for "a stupid cunt", which would have created an enormous scandal for the company.
  • Cain and Abel: In the novel-within-a-novel, it is revealed that Tom Blakiston's drowning was not an accident. He was actually killed by his older brother Robert in a fit of rage. Their mother, Mary, kept this information secret for decades but wrote a letter to Sir Magnus detailing the truth, a letter that would only be opened upon her death. After she suffers an accident, Robert kills Sir Magnus to prevent him from letting his crime get out.
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  • Country Matters: Atticus Pünd's name is an anagram of "a stupid cunt." This is the motive for Alan Conway's murder.
  • Expy: Atticus Pünd is a clear stand in for Hercule Poirot, although he's German instead of Belgian and given a backstory of escaping the Holocaust. James Fraser is a stand in for Captain Hastings.
  • Fair-Play Whodunnit: Both the novel-within-a-novel Magpie Murders by Alan Conway and the present-day frame story fit this trope.
  • Freudian Excuse: Whatever he might have been later in life, Alan Conway's childhood was utterly horrific; he had few friends and was often beat by his Sadist Teacher father.
  • Genre Savvy: Susan has been an avid fan and editor of whodunnit mystery novels for many years, so she goes through the entire Conway murder investigation trying to use the genre conventions to help guide her.
    Susan: You'd have thought that after twenty years editing murder mysteries I'd have noticed when I found myself in the middle of one.
  • Heir Club for Men: in Conway's novel, it turns out Clarissa was the elder child, and she was the rightful inheritor of Pye Hall. Her father, however, wanted a male heir, and forced Doctor Rennard to lie on the birth certificate and claim Magnus was the elder twin.
  • Love Makes You Evil: After being revealed as the killer in Conway's novel, Robert Blakiston tells his fiance Joy that he killed Sir Magnus to protect their future together.
  • Magpies as Portents: The structure of Conway's novel Magpie Murders revolves around this, with each chapter taking its title from a line in the nursery rhyme. Magpies also appear as motifs throughout the book.
  • Meta Fiction: The frame story is initially just an editor reading a new mystery novel and the first half of the book is this fictional novel. Then, halfway through, she discovers the ending is missing and winds up in a murder mystery of her own that heavily resembles the one she was just reading.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Subverted here in that the author is not the protagonist of the story. In fact, he's a major douchebag Jerkass and the murder victim. Editors, who are normally portrayed as ruthlessly tearing apart a writer's work, are given a positive portrayal here through protagonist Susan Ryeland.
  • Never Suicide: At first it appears that Conway's death is an accident, then a suicide letter arrives in the mail. However, Susan begins to suspect this trope and investigates whether or not someone killed the author and forged the letter. It turns out the killer took part of the letter from the final portion of Magpie Murders, which is why he had to hide the last chapter from Susan.
  • Off with His Head!: How the murder victim bites it in the Conway novel, with a medieval sword no less.
  • Pet the Dog: Magnus Pye is a complete arsehole, but he did take good care of Robert and Thomas Blakiston when they were children.
  • Red Herring: Hoo boy. A boatload in both the In-Universe novel and Susan's plotline.
  • Spell My Name with an "S": Susan receives an envelope in the mail containing a photograph that appears to show Conway's murder that spells her surname as "Ryland." She states that she hates it when people spell her surname without the E.
  • Significant Anagram: "Atticus Pünd" is an anagram of "a stupid cunt," showing Conway's feelings towards the detective genre. This is also the motive for his murder.
  • Straight Gay: Alan Conway and his partner James Taylor.
  • Stylistic Suck: Played with. The novel-within—a-novel ‘Magpie Murders’ is a well written and constructed Christie pastiche that would be worth reading even without the framing story. On the other hand, Conway’s unpublished novel ‘The Slide’ is truly terrible from the extract we are shown.
  • The Summation: In true Poirot style, Atticus Pünd gives one of these at the end of Magpie Murders where he explains who the killer is and how/why they did it. Also, Susan gives one to Charles Clover at the end of her plotline where she explains to them how she figured out they murdered Conway.
  • Theme Naming: Conway gives the characters in every Atticus Pünd novel a differently-themed last name. Susan figures out Conway's murderer when she spots the Odd Name Out.
  • This Is Reality: Detective Locke goes on a rant about this to Susan while complaining that mystery novels and TV shows never portray murder accurately. He says that most murders in real life are done on impulse by incompetent criminals without overly elaborate schemes to conceal their identities. Of course, the end of the book reveals that Conway was murdered by his publisher, Charles Clover, who then elaborately covered up his death by making it look like a suicide.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Charles Clover is such a well-respected businessman within the publishing industry that even after he gets arrested for murdering Alan Conway, his peers are more angry at Susan for ending his career since none of them liked Alan to begin with and Charles "only killed one writer."
  • Who Murdered the Asshole?: Both mysteries in the novel revolve around the murder of someone who was widely hated by those who knew him.

Example of: