British author Anthony Horowitz, 62, has sold 16 million books over a 37-year writing career. He’s created memorable original characters while conjuring the prose style, atmosphere, and characterizations of both Arthur Conan Doyle and Ian Fleming.With his latest, Magpie Murders (Harper, June), Horowitz has set himself an even higher bar than simulating the work of legendary authors: reinventing the whodunit, almost a century after the fair-play rules of the genre were established.
Horowitz had literary aspirations early on. When he was 10 years old, he wrote a play, The Thing That Never Happened, about the Guy Fawkes plot to blow up Parliament in the 17th century. He was greatly influenced, as were many mystery writers, by reading Sherlock Holmes as a teenager; less commonly, he was also inspired by Tin Tin. Horowitz persisted with writing, despite a hostile reception to the idea from his father, and at 24 published his first book, The Sinister Secret of Frederick K. Bower (Arlington), a children’s novel.
Like vital evidence hidden in plain view by the author toward the beginning of a golden age novel, the first clue that Horowitz would grow up to become a successful mystery author may have appeared at his birth on Apr. 5, 1955. He was delivered by Dr. Jack Suchet, the father of David Suchet, the actor who has most faithfully portrayed Agatha Christie’s beloved Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. “I owe my existence in this world to the Suchet family,” Horowitz jokes over breakfast at Manhattan’s Crosby Street Hotel.
Horowitz’s tongue-in-cheek connection with Christie, a writer whose plot construction he admires greatly, is related to the new challenge he’d set himself in writing Magpie Murders—to craft a classic fair-play whodunit with a twist.
Horowitz has mastered the formidable hurdle he had placed in his own path by making clever use of a story within a story that enables him to present two separate surprising, but logical, reveals. The novel opens with an ominous prologue in which a fictional British book editor, Susan Ryland, alludes to the dire consequences that all seemed to stem from her innocuous, routine task of reading a manuscript also titled Magpie Murders: “But Magpie Murders really did change everything for me. I no longer live in Crouch End. I no longer have my job. I’ve managed to lose a great many friends. That evening, as I reached out and turned the first page of the typescript, I had no idea of the journey I was about to begin.”
Horowitz next switches gears by presenting the story that Ryland wishes she had never read—the ninth mystery in a fictional series featuring the Poirot-like Atticus Pünd, a half-German, half-Greek Holocaust survivor who sleuths in 1950s England. Pünd, after receiving a devastating medical diagnosis, declines a woman’s entreaties to help clear the name of her fiancé, accused of killing his mother. Although the police regard the fatal fall down a flight of stairs as accidental, the residents of their village consider the son a murderer.
When another death follows—decapitation with a sword, leaving no doubt that foul play was involved—Pünd changes his mind. He travels to the village with his devoted, less astute sidekick to investigate which of the many people wishing the victim dead was responsible. The closed circle of suspects, and the reliance on Pünd’s “little grey cells,” rather than on forensics and technology to solve the crime (or crimes), are welcome and familiar features.
Magpie Murders was written over more than a decade. “I have a notebook jammed with clues, red herrings, and all the other puzzles that you get in the book,” Horowitz says. “The trick for me was to write a book that wouldn’t be confusing to readers and would provide satisfaction at the end but which in itself is incredibly intricate.”
Genre fans will be delighted that Magpie Murders is just the beginning of Horowitz’s serious engagement with fair-play murder mysteries. In September, British publisher Century will bring out The Word Is Murder, a series kickoff that Harper is set to publish in 2018. The puzzle hearkens back to the golden age of detection between the World Wars, when authors like John Dickson Carr tantalized audiences with impossible crimes: in The Word Is Murder, a woman is strangled to death six hours after she arranges her own funeral.
Horowitz, who received the Order of the British Empire for his services to literature in 2014, says he wants “to transform the genre.” Not too tall an order for a writer whose career includes numerous writing credits in multiple media: he’s penned 11 episodes of the Hercule Poirot TV series and created the WWII mystery TV drama Foyle’s War, scripting all nine of its seasons. His novels include new exploits for Sherlock Holmes (The House of Silk, Mulholland, 2011; Moriarty, Harper, 2014) and James Bond (Trigger Mortis, Harper, 2015), as well as the YA Alex Rider thriller series.
For many in the U.S., Horowitz is best known as the creator of Foyle’s War (which started life with the name The Blitz Detective, before its lead was named after the famous London bookstore). Horowitz was able to use the murder-of-the-episode format to tell true but lesser-known stories of the period, including a scandalous one about Winston Churchill’s secret army.
The series was produced by Horowitz’s wife, Jill Green, with whom he is working on a film adaptation of Magpie Murders and whose Eleventh Hour Films also produced his latest TV series (his first for the BBC), New Blood. The show features two junior investigators, one with the CID and one with the Serious Fraud Office, who handle sophisticated financial crimes, pitting their intellects against white-collar crooks. The BBC had been looking for dramas that would appeal to a younger audience, and Horowitz’s leads, who are not “those slow middle-aged problem detectives you see so often on TV,” are saddled with a burden Christopher Foyle never had: student loans. The investigators are also not the typical white Anglo-Saxon British protagonists but are Eastern European and Iranian, a unique pairing in detective fiction.
With his impressive background, the chances of Horowitz accomplishing his latest goal, to become Christie’s literary successor for the 21st century, are as secure as the millions of fans who have watched him diligently and imaginatively enmesh compelling characters in brain-teasing plots.
Lenny Picker is a freelance writer in New York City.