‘The Name Atticus Pünd was familiar to him….’ – Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

November 19, 2017 at 2:30 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  This is like a Golden Age detective novel on steroids – not that all of those were necessarily short. There’s always Gaudy Night. And that crowning (and lengthy) achievement in crime fiction by Dorothy L Sayers does not contain a murder.

Magpie Murders is a book within a book. Or perhaps it is better described as a book alongside another book. At the very least. it is oddly structured. But it does have some recognizable features, most particularly a brainy and cultured ‘consulting’ detective who arrives on Britain’s shores as a refugee from the war on the Continent. Remind you of someone? Well, he is somewhat reminiscent of Hercule Poirot, but his finely honed powers of observation also bring to mind Sherlock Holmes.

He is Atticus Pünd. This is how he appears to a physician who is treating him:

The name Atticus Pünd was familiar to him, of course. He was often mentioned in the newspapers – a German refugee who had managed to survive the war after spending a year in one of Hitler’s concentration camps. At the time of his arrest he had been a policeman working in Berlin – or perhaps it was Vienna – and after arriving in England, he had set himself up as a private detective, helping the police on numerous occasions. He did not look like a detective. He was a small man, very neat, his hands folded in front of him. He was wearing a dark suit, a white shirt and a narrow black tie. His shoes were polished. If he had not known otherwise, the doctor might have mistaken him for an accountant, the sort who would work for a family firm and who would be utterly reliable.

—————————

Inevitably, Atticus Pund has a ‘Watson,’ hired to assist him in his detecting and record keeping endeavors. This is James Fraser.

A graduate out of Oxford University, a would-be actor, broke, and perennially unemployed, he had answered an advertisement in the Spectator thinking that he would stay in the job for a few months. Six years later, he was still there.

(Later in the novel, we’re informed that James Fraser was named for actor Hugh Fraser who played Captain Hastings, the somewhat dim but extremely likable ‘associate’ of  David Suchet’s brilliant Poirot.)

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot and Hugh Fraser as Captain Arthur Hastings

Atticus Pünd is a person possessed of deep understanding and a great capacity for empathy. Here, he is confiding to James Fraser his anxiety about the case they are investigating:

 ‘There is something about the village of Saxby-on-Avon that concerns me,’ he went on. ‘I have spoken to you before of the nature of human wickedness, my friend. How it is the small lies and evasions which nobody sees or detects but which can come together and smother you like the fumes in a house fire.’ He turned and surveyed the surrounding buildings, the shaded square. ‘They are all around us. Already there have been two deaths: three, if you include the child who died in the lake all those years ago. They are all connected. We must move quickly before there is a fourth.’

Meanwhile, Pünd is at work on a book which he hopes will encompass all the skills that he has acquired in the course of his detecting l life. It is to be entitled The Landscape of Criminal Investigation. (This immediately put me in mind of the oft-quoted tome The Principles of Private Detection,  written by Clovis Anderson and held in the highest esteem by Precious Ramotswe and Grace Makutsi of the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Their creator, Alexander McCall Smith, has said that readers frequently ask him where they can obtain a copy of this purportedly  wondrous volume. “You can’t,” he responds. “I made it up!”)

The Atticus Pünd novels are written by Alan Conway. His London-based editor, Susan Ryeland, narrates a portion of Magpie Murders. (As I said, this is a novel within a novel, or you could say it’s two novels conflated into one. If this seems confusing, don’t worry. It’s actually quite a cunning edifice, offering numerous delights and surprises within.)

At one point, Ryeland speculates on the appeal of the English village as a setting for crime fiction:

Why do English villages lend themselves so well to murder? I used to wonder about this but got the answer when I made the mistake of renting a cottage in a village near Chichester….I soon discovered that every time I made one friend I made three enemies and that arguments about such issues as car parking, the church bells, dog waste and hanging flower baskets dominated daily life to such an extent that everyone was permanently at each other’s throats. That’s the truth of it. Emotions which are quickly lost in the noise and chaos of the city fester around the village square, driving people to psychosis and violence. It’s a gift to the whodunnit writer. There’s also the advantage of connectivity. Cities are anonymous but in a small, rural community everyone knows everyone, making it so much easier to create suspects and, for that matter, people to suspect them.

This passage put me in mind of the following exchange between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in  the story “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches.” The two are traveling by train from London to Winchester:

It was an ideal spring day, a light blue sky, flecked with little fleecy white clouds drifting across from west to east. The sun was shining very brightly, and yet there was an exhilarating nip in the air, which set an edge to a man’s energy. All over the countryside, away to the rolling hills around Aldershot, the little red and grey roofs of the farm-steadings peeped out from amid the light green of the new foliage.

“Are they not fresh and beautiful?” I cried with all the enthusiasm of a man fresh from the fogs of Baker Street.

But Holmes shook his head gravely.

“Do you know, Watson,” said he, “that it is one of the curses of a mind with a turn like mine that I must look at everything with reference to my own special subject. You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there.”

“Good heavens!” I cried. “Who would associate crime with these dear old homesteads?”

“They always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”

Susan Ryeland is a lover of detective fiction, but she’s genuinely puzzled by the  frequent use of murder as a key plot device:

There are hundreds and hundreds of murders in books and television. It would be hard for narrative fiction to survive without them. And yet there are almost none in real life, unless you happen to live in the wrong area. Why is it that we have such a need for murder mystery and what is it that attracts us – the crime or the solution? Do we have some primal need of bloodshed because our own lives are so safe, so comfortable? I made a mental note to check out Alan’s sales figures in San Pedro Sula in Honduras (the murder capital of the world). It might be that they didn’t read him at all.

(It saddens me to reflect that the comment about “the wrong area” would probably not be made these days by an American. We’re learning more and more, to our collective chagrin, that the wrong area can be anywhere at all.)

Despite a certain unease, Susan Ryeland readily confesses her love for the crime fiction genre:

I’ve always loved whodunnits. I’ve not just edited them. I’ve read them for pleasure throughout my life, gorging on them actually. You must know that feeling when it’s raining outside and the heating’s on and you lose yourself, utterly, in a book. You read and you read and you feel the pages slipping through your fingers until suddenly there are fewer in your right hand than there are in your left and you want to slow down but you still hurtle on towards a conclusion you can hardly bear to discover. That is the particular power of the whodunnit which has, I think, a special place within the general panoply of literary fiction because, of all characters, the detective enjoys a particular, indeed a unique relationship with the reader. Whodunnits are all about truth: nothing more, nothing less.

Ah, yes – the pages slipping through your fingers, a delicious sensation hard to replicate with an e-reader…. And speaking of pages, don’t be daunted  by the novel’s length. It’s about 450 pages long but they fly by. (And why can’t I tell you exactly how long it is? Well, I’d have to do some arithmetic first. But really, just get it and you will see for yourself.)

Magpie Murders is a splendid hommage to the crime fiction of a bygone era. I’m immensely grateful to Anthony Horowitz for writing it.

Anthony Horowitz, named Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to literature in 2014

 

2 Comments

  1. Janet said,

    What a great review. I love this book. You don’t usually lead me astray. You were the person who introduced me to Louise Penny years ago so I do trust you. PS do you hear from Meredith Chancellor? if so give her my best.

  2. MrsC (Maryanne) said,

    Oh I just found this after googling Atticus Pund. I have just discovered these books and this writer. And I am a long time fan of Louise Penny! Great taste in books on this page!

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