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It’s a Mystery: “What better place than a funeral for a study in human nature”

By (June 1, 2017) No Comment

Magpie Murders
By Anthony Horowitz
Harper, 2017

Exit Strategy
By Steve Hamilton
Putnam, 2017

As Jane Marple, Agatha Christie’s endearing spinster sleuth, said, “There is often a great deal of wickedness in village life.” That is certainly the premise of Anthony Horowitz’s clever pastiche-cum-homage to Christie and golden-age whodunits, Magpie Murders. Actually, the novel combines two books in one. The first, set in 1950’s England, is the manuscript of a fictional Christie-style yarn (whose title is this book’s title) complete with vicar, village and vengeance. The second, set in the twenty-first century, is embedded in a novel that is itself a tribute to that golden age. It’s all a grand tour de force that both honors and pokes fun at the genre. No surprise, coming as it does from the fertile creator of loving reconstructions of Conan Doyle (House of Silk and Moriarty) and Ian Fleming (Trigger Mortis – reviewed in my October 2015 column). Horowitz is also the virtuoso who brought us TV’s Midsomer Murders, Foyle’s War and Poirot.

In a titillating prologue, an unnamed editor describes how reading the manuscript of Magpie Murders changed her life without revealing how. It’s the ninth Atticus Pünd novel in the bestselling mystery series by Alan Conway. The manuscript is accompanied by a bio of Conway and blurbs from real-life authors Ian Rankin and Robert Harris. Plus there are a raft of reviews that tell us Atticus Pünd is an erudite Poirot-like detective who belongs right up there with Sherlock Holmes and Lord Peter Wimsey, among others in the small, elite circle of great investigators of crime. In the text of the manuscript itself, we meet him early on in the office of a Harley Street specialist (a portent of things to come):

Dr. Benson examined his patient with a certain amount of puzzlement. 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…

So he is not the dandy that Poirot is, except for the shoes. Nevertheless, as we get further into the case, we learn that, like Poirot, he plays things very close to the vest, doesn’t believe in “the coincidence,” doesn’t suffer fools gladly and leaves nothing to chance.

Let us take things in order, as the little Belgian might say. The manuscript starts with a funeral. Aptly enough, it is old Jeff Weaver the gravedigger who is our introductory guide to Saxby-on-Avon the quaint little hamlet where the ceremony for the dead is taking place. It’s the funeral of Mary Elizabeth Blakiston, devoted housekeeper to Sir Magnus Pye. She took a fatal fall down a flight of stairs while vacuuming in Pye Hall. It was deemed an accidental death since she was alone in the manor whose doors were all locked. Except, we soon learn that she was a menacing busybody. As the vicar studies his eulogy he muses, “Somehow, she was always there when you needed her. The trouble was, she was also there when you didn’t.”

The first chapter ends with Weaver under a tree full of magpies in the cemetery.

In the end he counted seven and that put him in mind of the old nursery rhyme he had learned as a child,

One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told.

Each of the chapter headings in Magpie Murders including the first follows the rhyme: Sorrow, Joy, A Girl etc. Children’s verse is a device Christie used many times. Of course, as any mystery buff worth his smelling salts will surmise, Conway is not just mimicking Christie, he’s up to something. But what?

Back to the manuscript. Pünd gets fully involved when Sir Magnus is murdered, decapitated by a sword from the full suit of armor that was on display in Pye Hall. As Pünd, who is now teamed up with his old chum, detective inspector Chubb, soon learns there is no lack of suspects. Sir Magnus was almost universally disliked. And everyone in Saxby-on-Avon appears to harbor a guilty secret (remember Miss Marple’s observation). It was Poirot who often said, “I reserve the explanations for the last chapter.” And therein lays the rub: the last chapter of the manuscript is missing. The sixth chapter ends in a cliffhanger, as Pünd makes a pronouncement that doesn’t make any sense.

The second half of the book begins with the surprising death of author Alan Conway. The question of whether his demise was a suicide or not adds another layer of intrigue to the mystery of the missing chapter. As the editor, whose name is Susan Ryeland, is painfully aware, the publishing house’s fortunes rest upon her success in solving that mystery. We are told that Conway loved puzzles and word games. Well, so does Anthony Horowitz. And a canny reader will understand that the clues in the first half will lead to the solution of the second. More than that it would be criminal to reveal. Except to say that the devilish twists and turns he takes to wrap up the Magpie Murders will knock your socks off!

Exit Strategy, Steve Hamilton’s follow-up to his high voltage series launch, The Second Life of Nick Mason (reviewed in my June 2016 column) is as far removed from the English village milieu as you can get. In the first book, Mason gets sprung after five years from a federal prison by Darius Cole, the head honcho within the walls. Cole, serving a double-life term, controls an international network of criminal activity from behind bars. In exchange for his release, Mason becomes Cole’s designated killer 24/7, dispatched by a cell phone he must never be without to rub out whoever Cole needs eliminated.

Oh, Mason lives in Chicago in a fancy Lincoln Park town house (light years from where he grew up). But as his keeper Quintero, Cole’s tough-a-nails hombre on the outside, tells him during their first encounter: “This isn’t freedom. This is mobility. Don’t get those two things confused.”

Mason made the bargain blindsided by the hope of rekindling his relationship with his wife Gina and daughter Adriana. Now he has an ex-wife and a daughter he rarely sees. He’s a paid assassin in a gilded cage living up to a Faustian deal.

Mason’s newest assignment is part of Cole’s plan to overturn his life sentence. It is a true mission impossible, assignment absurd, operation out of the question—infiltrate WITSEC, the top secret federal witness protection program that has never been penetrated—locate the three men who put Cole behind bars and kill them. If they testify, Cole will never see the outside world, if they are eliminated; he will walk a free man.

Mason’s quarry is virtual ghost prisoners locked down in restricted, highly classified locations, protected by an army of heavily armed U.S. marshals, until a prisoner is moved up to Chicago for what’s called a pretrial deposition. Cole has a marshal on the inside who gives Quintero and Mason all they need to know to make the first hit. His name is Ken McLaren and he was once Cole’s chief accountant:

A former IRS agent, a genius at moving money overseas, “redomiciling It” by investing in businesses that all looked legal on paper, then bringing the money back, avoiding any taxes. For almost a decade, he made Cole a shitload of money.

Then his son got picked up on the University of Chicago campus for drug possession and they held that over McLaren’s head until he agreed to testify against Cole. Now McLaren has been moved to an apartment in one of the most distinctive buildings in Chicago. Mason, in proper body gear, armed with a shotgun, and thoroughly prepped by Quintero on taking the target undetected, makes his move. He nails his man but not without leaving a trail of bodies and taking a bullet in the shoulder.

Mason manages to get to his girlfriend’s apartment. She calls Quintero who takes care of the bullet—no surprise, he’s done this before. Afterwards, Quintero insists on moving Mason to a safer place:

Quintero pulled out into traffic….”You really fucked up,” Quintero said, easing the Escalade away from the intersection. “This is gonna come back on all of us.

“What do you mean,” Mason said, “all of us?

“You know the rules. Everyone’s in play….Your job was to take out the accountant…Mine was to drive to Elmhurst. Wait to hear from you…Or not.”

Mason sat straight up in the car seat. Elmhurst meant two things: His ex-wife Gina. His daughter Adriana.

It was a threat Mason had heard before: you fail, they die…. From the moment Mason had walked out of that prison, he’d been thinking about what it would take to break free from this second life he’d found himself in.

He’d been watching. And waiting.

…I am going to burn you down, he thought. You. Darius Cole. Everyone else who works for him.

I am going to burn you all down.

Moving relentlessly forward , Hamilton ratchets up the tension as he sends Mason spiraling into a maelstrom of danger from which he may never fully recover. Exit Strategy is an edgy, intelligent, uncompromising novel you won’t soon forget.

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.