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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 Hercule Poirot novels, featuring quirky detective Atticus Pünd as he solves a murder in a sleepy English countryside village where nothing is as it seems.

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.

A sequel, Moonflower Murders, using a similar metafictional approach, was published in 2020. Horowitz has said that one more novel in the series is planned.

In 2022, Magpie Murders was made into a series, starring Lesley Manville as Susan Ryeland, Conleth Hill as Alan Conway, and Tim McMullan as Atticus Pünd.


  • Accident, Not Murder: Mary fell down the stairs accidentally. The one after that, though, was a murder caused by that accident.
  • 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.
    • 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 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 but charming assistant.
  • Awful Wedded Life: Magnus Pye and his wife Frances don't even like each other, and Frances is cheating on him.
  • Aw, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: Susan and her boyfriend have a fairly strained relationship, but he saves her life, had been planning a nice surprise for her and ultimately does end up living happily with her in an epilogue.
  • Bait-and-Switch: When Robert comes under suspicion for murdering his mother, his fiancée Joy writes a note that the narrative sets up as shady, talking about how she's nervous to write it and doesn't want him to see it, leading the reader to think she might be trying to blackmail someone or throw suspicion somewhere else. Turns out she's just writing a public announcement that she stayed at his house all night that night, giving him an alibi, and she's nervous because it's 1955 and she knows she'll get slut-shamed.
  • 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. It's also implied that, like Susan herself, as an avid mystery reader and fan of Atticus Pünd, Clover felt betrayed and insulted by Conway's so-called 'prank'.
  • 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.
  • Chekhov's Party: The hunt for the gold piece at Pye Hall. Mentioned offhandedly, Mary Blakiston's other son Thomas drowned after finding the coin. But Atticus realizes, because of the detail about Robert's wet trousers, that Robert actually killed Thomas in a fit of jealousy about finding the gold first. This caused Mary to write the letter implicating Robert that could be opened by Magnus in the event of her sudden death, which was why Robert had to kill him.
  • Comicbook Fantasy Casting: As Susan discovers from a pinned photo, Atticus is supposed to look like (and is partially inspired by) Ben Kingsley's Itzhak Stern in Schindler's List.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Lampshaded. Susan comments about how she doesn't like coincidence in murder mysteries, that the solution should come from the detective's deduction. Then she says that, well, there are eight million people in London and it was Charles's ex-secretary Jemima whom Susan randomly met when she got off the train. That chance meeting unravels the mystery.
  • Country Matters: Atticus Pünd's name is an anagram of "a stupid cunt". This is the motive for Alan Conway's murder.
  • Cozy Mystery: Deconstructed. The Atticus Pünd books are usually pretty straight examples (though not without darker hints in the vein of a traditional Agatha Christie novel). Susan's mysteries are often much more sordid and far from cozy, reflecting their modern origins.
  • Depraved Homosexual: Alan Conway is a Disappeared Dad who abandoned his son after coming out as gay, preferring to have sex with prostitutes young enough to be his son.
  • Discriminate and Switch: Everyone thinks that one of the reasons Mary Blakiston didn't want her son to marry Joy is that Joy has a brother with Down's Syndrome, meaning their children might inherit it. Actually, it was Robert she didn't want to have children, in case they turned out like him. It's implied she also feared Robert might hurt Joy's brother out of jealousy for Joy's love and attention.
  • Dramatic Irony: In Conway's novel, Joy hires Pünd to prove that, as she knows, he didn't kill his mother Mary. Unfortunately for her, she doesn't realize that he committed an earlier murder.
  • Epilogue Letter: Conway's novel ends with Pünd leaving to commit suicide or Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence (depending on your perspective) and writing an emotional letter to his James Fraser.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Robert might be a "psychopath" who murdered his younger brother out of jealousy, but he genuinely adores both Joy and their (unborn) baby.
  • Evil Stole My Faith: Atticus thinks about God and religion after finding out that he is terminally ill. He no longer believes in God, after the Holocaust and what he saw in the camps.
  • Executive Meddling: An In-Universe example proves to be a significant plot point; Conway's publishers want to change the title of the final Pünd book to "The Magpie Murders," which Conway is dead set against because doing so would spoil the acrostic formed by the titles of all nine books.
  • 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.
    • Alan Conway's initials and hatred of the genre fiction he was forced to write to make a living reminds one of Arthur Conan Doyle.
  • Freudian Excuse: Whatever he might have been later in life, Alan Conway's childhood was utterly horrific; he had few friends and was often beaten 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.
  • Homemade Sweater from Hell: When DI Chubb meets Pünd and Fraser, he's wearing "a particularly unfortunate mauve cardigan" knitted by his wife.
  • Idyllic English Village: The idyllic British village is a common setting both in- and out of universe for the Atticus Pünd novels and Susan Ryland's mystery-solving. Magpie Murders is set in the cozy Framlingham, Suffolk, and the book within a book, also called Magpie Murders, is set in a small, ostensibly friendly town in Somerset.
  • Inspiration Nod: It's revealed that Atticus' assistant James Fraser is named that as a reference to both Alan Conway's boyfriend James Taylor and the actor Hugh Fraser, who played Captain Hastings in Poirot.
  • Long Game: Alan Conway's plan can only come to a head when all nine books in the Atticus Pünd series have been published: The titles of the books form an acrostic which spells out AN ANAGRAM, referring to Pünd's name.
  • Love Makes You Evil: After being revealed as the killer in Conway's novel, Robert Blakiston tells his fiancée 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.
  • Metaphorically True: Pünd tells Fraser that "Matthew Blakiston killed his wife." He didn't. He called her on the phone, which she ran after, tripping over the vacuum lead and breaking her neck.
  • 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.
  • Mythology Gag: The story-within-a-story is obviously In the Style of Agatha Christie, and there are a couple of winks to Christie books.
    • Dr. Redwing is from King's Abbott, and her father Dr. Edgar Rennard still lives there. The fictional village of King's Abbott was the setting for one of Agatha Christie's most famous books, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and Magpie Murders is an affectionate pastiche of Christie.
    • James Fraser once didn't notice that the man sitting next to him on the 3:50 train from Paddington was dead. Christie wrote a book called 4:50 from Paddington.
    • In fact there are several others, and Susan lists them all in the second section after she meets Agatha Christie's grandson. Susan begins to suspect that Alan was up to something after she ponders just how much Conway's book takes from Christie, an author that Conway admired/stole from.
  • Narrative Profanity Filter: Upon realising that Atticus Pünd's name is an anagram of "a stupid cunt," nobody ever says the offending word out loud; Susan just says "a stupid..." and finds the final word too offensive to say, leaving the reader to fill in the blank.
  • 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.
  • Not the First Victim: In Conway's novel, Pünd figures out that this trope is subverted in one way, and played straight in another. Robert killed Magnus Pye, but not his mother, Mary, who is the apparent first victim. It turns out he killed Pye due to having drowned his younger brother as children, and Mary, who knew, had left a confession with Pye in the event of her sudden death because she suspected that Robert would kill her too.
  • Off with His Head!: How the murder victim bites it in the Conway novel, with a medieval sword no less.
  • Orgy of Evidence: When someone mails Susan what appears to be a photograph of the murder, it only convinces her that that person did not do it. Someone is trying too hard too put him in the frame.
  • Pædo Hunt: Although no one within the Story Within a Story seems to realize it, Brant, the local groundskeeper, is heavily implied to be a pedophile, being an aging bachelor who's noted as watching boys swimming on occasion.
  • Pet the Dog: Magnus Pye is a complete arsehole, but he did take good care of Robert and Thomas Blakiston when they were children.
  • Police Are Useless: In both plot lines, with the detective in the real world having been the inspiration for Conway's character, causing him such intense hatred towards Conway that he has no inclination to give the investigation any real effort. The one exception is Hughes in Atticus Pünd Takes The Case, who is presented as a respectful and fully credible The Watson.
  • Real-Person Cameo: The grandson of Agatha Christie appears as an associate of Conway. In a post-novel extra, Anthony Horowitz himself tells about the time he interviewed Conway (and found him just as much of a Jerkass as everyone else). Sophie Hannah appears in the foreword to the short story "Eight for Dinner, Seven for Dessert".
  • Rich Sibling, Poor Sibling: Despite having been born the older twin, Clarissa and Magnus Pye's father changed the birth certificates so that Magnus would inherit everything, invoking Heir Club for Men. As a result, Magnus has the title and the house, while Clarissa is a spinster teacher.
  • Secretly Dying: The story-within-a-story opens with Atticus being diagnosed with terminal cancer, with a life span measured in weeks. This motivates him to take one last case.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Straight Gay: Alan Conway, whose wife was quite surprised when he told her he was gay.
  • 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.
  • Summation Gathering: 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 solved Conway's murder.
  • Theme Naming: Conway gives the characters in every Atticus Pünd novel a differently-themed last name: it's birds in Magpie Murders. 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.
  • Two-Act Structure: The first half of the book, after Susan's intro, is Alan Conway's Magpie Murders, right up to the last missing chapter. Then Susan takes over and the second half of the book is her investigating where the missing chapter is and who killed both Sir Magnus Pye and Alan Conway. The page numbers even reset.
  • 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 angrier at Susan for ending his career since none of them liked Alan to begin with and Charles "only killed one writer."
  • Warning Mistaken for Threat: Joy thought that her future mother-in-law Mary Blakiston hated her and wanted her gone due to her general aloofness and encouraging her to leave Robert. She was actually trying to tip Joyce off about Robert's violent and, in her mind, psychopathic nature. Downplayed in that Robert genuinely loved Joyce and posed no actual threat to her.
  • Who Murdered the Asshole: Both mysteries in the novel revolve around the murder of someone who was widely hated by those who knew them, and who had recently given a whole lot of people really good reasons to want them dead. Mary was basically blackmailing several village residents, while Magnus Pye was an awful husband and employer who was going to sell a beloved woodland to developers. Subverted in Mary's case, however, as she really did fall down the stairs by accident. Pye, meanwhile, was murdered by the one person he was nice to.
  • The Wrongful Heir to the Throne: It ultimately turns out that Magnus's sister should have inherited the family seat instead of him.