What Makes A Good Whodunit? 'Magpie Murders' Author Spells It Out

Jun 13, 2017

Murder. For writer Anthony Horowitz, that's where it all starts. He says everyone is fascinated by murder — just look at Foyle's War, his BBC mystery series. The show is set in the U.K. during World War II, but that wasn't its selling point.

"If I had gone to the BBC and said I wanted write about, I don't know, the social history of 1940 to '47, they would have probably said no," Horowitz explains. "When I said, 'I've got a whole series of terrific murders which take place in that time,' they opened the door."

Horowitz has written two Sherlock Holmes novels (with the blessing of Arthur Conan Doyle's estate) and created two popular mystery shows for the BBC, Foyle's War and Midsomer Murders. His latest foray into fictional crime solving is a whodunit about whodunits: a novel called Magpie Murders.

Horowitz says murder is a fast way to get to know someone — their secrets, their habits, their enemies, their friends. It takes a smart detective to sort through all the pieces of the puzzle and put them in the right place, because, of course, in a good whodunit the murder always gets solved.

"A whodunit is one of the few types of fiction that dot every i and cross every t, for all fiction is in a way a search for truth," Horowitz says. "Whodunits give you truth. The final chapter always nails it, closes it down, and you come away with a sense of satisfaction, which I don't think you get in any other sort of book."

When Horowitz was a teenager, he hitchhiked around the world and read all of Agatha Christie's novels along the way. His show Midsomer Murders is a series of classic whodunits, and it was during that show's first season, some 20 years ago, that he got the idea for Magpie Murders. Still, it took Horowitz a long time to finally write the book.

"I wanted it to be more than just a murder mystery story," he says. "I wanted it to be ... a sort of a treatise on the whole genre of murder mystery writing. How the writers come up with the ideas; how these books are formed. That was my interest in writing it. I didn't just want people to have the fun and the pleasure of 'Oh, it was the doctor' ... on the final page. I wanted there to be something a little bit more."

It's clear from the first page of Magpie Murders that something different is afoot in this mystery. It opens on a rainy day in London as an editor at a small publishing company is settling in to read a book, also called Magpie Murders. It's the latest whodunit by her best-selling author, and it unfolds a quaint English village.

"English villages are very peculiar places," Horowitz says. "Everybody knows everybody, everbody has something bad to say about everybody else and everybody has secrets. You get the sense that behind those net curtains everybody is up to something they'd rather you didn't know. And so it's a sort of a cauldron; it's a microcosm. And it is a perfect environment for something unpleasant — a murder, for example — to take place."

Of course, there's a major plot twist in Magpie Murders: When the editor discovers a chapter is missing, she turns sleuth and (not surprisingly) her search for the missing pages leads to another tale of murder and mayhem, also set in a quaint English village.

Horowitz says if he's done the job right, you won't be able to figure out who the murderers are until the very end of the book. "It has to have that big smile that comes with the surprise 'Oh, it was him!' or 'Oh, it was her! I should have seen that.' And if you can manage that, if you can pull it off, then I think you've written a successful whodunit."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

"Magpie Murders" it's a whodunit about whodunits. It's the new book by Anthony Horowitz, his latest foray into fictional crime solving. He knows the genre well. He's written two "Sherlock Holmes" novels with the blessing of the Conan Doyle estate. He also created two popular BBC mystery shows, "Midsomer Murders" and "Foyle's War." NPR's Lynn Neary talks with Horowitz about the elements that make a mystery so satisfying.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Murder - that's where it all starts. Everyone is fascinated by murder, says Horowitz. Take "Foyle's War," for example. The series is set in Britain during World War II, but Horowitz says that wasn't its selling point.

ANTHONY HOROWITZ: If I had gone to the BBC and said I wanted to write about, I don't know, the social history of 1940 to '47, they would have probably said no. When I said I've got a whole series of terrific murders which take place in that time, they opened the door.

NEARY: Murder is a fast way to get to know someone, says Horowitz - their secrets, their habits, their enemies, their friends. It takes a smart detective to sort through all the pieces of the puzzle and put them in the right place because of course in a good whodunit, the murder is always solved.

HOROWITZ: A whodunit is one of the few types of fiction that dot every I and cross every T, for all fiction is in a way a search for truth. Whodunits gives you truth. The final chapter always nails it, closes it down. And you come away with a sense of satisfaction which I don't think you get in any other sort of book.

NEARY: When Horowitz was a teenager, he hitchhiked around the world and read all of Agatha Christie's novels along the way. His other BBC show, "Midsomer Murders," is a series of classic whodunits featuring the very clever Chief Inspector Barnaby.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MIDSOMER MURDERS")

JOHN NETTLES: (As DCI Tom Barnaby) Michael Lacey - why did he run all that way back to Tye House to call the ambulance when the accident happened on the other side of the village? Why didn't he call the ambulance from there? And why that day of all days did Phyllis Cadell decide to shoot?

NEARY: It was during the first season of "Midsomer Murders" some 20 years ago that Horowitz got the idea for "Magpie Murders." It took him a long time to finally write the book because it was complicated, and he wasn't sure he could pull it off.

HOROWITZ: I wanted it to be more than just a murder mystery story. I wanted it to be a little bit - a sort of a treatise on the whole genre of murder mystery writing - how the writers come up with the ideas, how these books are formed. That was my interest in writing it. I didn't just want people to have the fun or the pleasure of, oh, it was the doctor, it was the dentist on the final page. I wanted there to be something a little bit more.

NEARY: It's clear from the very first page that something different is afoot in this mystery. It opens on a rainy day in London as an editor at a small publishing company is settling in to read a book called "Magpie Murders." It's the latest whodunit by her best-selling author who created the popular detective Atticus Pund.

HOROWITZ: (Reading) Atticus Pund had not been in the village very long, but in a strange way, he felt he'd come to know it intimately - the church, the castle, the antique shop in the square, the bus shelter, Dingle Dell and of course Pye Hall. They had always related to each other in various ways, but over the past week, they had become fixed points in a landscape of crime.

NEARY: Naturally this story unfolds in a quaint English village. A good mystery, says Horowitz, needs a small, contained setting filled with people living in close quarters.

HOROWITZ: The truth is, is that English villages are very peculiar places. Everybody knows everybody. Everybody has something bad to say about everybody else. And everybody has secrets. You get the sense that behind those net curtains, everybody is up to something they'd rather you didn't know. And so it's a - sort of a cauldron. It's a microcosm, and it is the perfect environment for something unpleasant - a murder, for example - to take place.

NEARY: Of course there is a major plot twist in the "Magpie Murders." Suffice to say the editor turns sleuth when she discovers a chapter is missing. Not surprisingly, her search for the missing pages leads to another tale of murder and mayhem also set in a quaint English village. Horowitz manages to dot the i's and cross the t's of both plots, and he says if he's really done the job right, you won't be able to figure out who the murderers are.

HOROWITZ: It has to have that big smile that comes with the surprise, oh, it was him, or, oh, it was her; I should have seen that. And if you can manage that, if you can pull it off, then I think you've written a successful whodunit.

NEARY: So whodunit? I'll never tell. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SHACKS SONG, "ORCHIDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.