To begin with, you’ll get two books for the price of one. Quite literally.
In what one might call the frame novel, Susan Ryeland — the now retired book editor who first appeared in “Magpie Murders”— has been living for two years in Crete with her lover-fiance, Andreas, where they manage the family-run, slightly down-at-the-heels Polydorus Hotel. While Susan frequently refers back to her earlier career in publishing, Horowitz carefully avoids having her reveal too much about the circumstances surrounding the death of her best-selling author, the difficult and unlikable Alan Conway, creator of the Hercule Poirot-like, German Jewish detective Atticus Pünd.
One morning, a well-to-do couple named Lawrence and Pauline Treherne unexpectedly show up at the Polydorus, practically begging for Susan’s help. Eight years prior, there had been a horrible murder at Branlow Hall, the ritzy Suffolk hotel they own. On the eve of their daughter Cecily’s lavish wedding, a handyman named Stefan Codrescu bludgeoned a guest named Frank Parris to death. The young Romanian had eventually confessed and was given a 25-year sentence.
Cecily, however, never believed in Stefan’s guilt.
And now, all this time later, something has happened. Cecily recently telephoned her parents to say she had discovered the identity of the actual murderer by reading Alan Conway’s third mystery, “Atticus Pünd Takes the Case.” Shortly after her call, the young wife and mother went for a walk and hasn’t been seen since. Is Cecily still alive? Is she in hiding? Unfortunately, she never revealed what she’d learned from Conway’s novel.
The Trehernes offer Susan 10,000 pounds to help them locate their daughter. As the longtime editor of the Atticus Pünd novels, she knows them better than anyone else now alive. Would she spend some time at Branlow Hall, interview its personnel, and then reread “Atticus Pünd Takes the Case” to see if she can spot what Cecily saw in the book? Susan agrees, partly because she’s unsure about her future with Andreas.
The action now moves to Suffolk and London.
Susan knows that after the Parris murder, Alan Conway spent some time questioning the Trehernes, their daughters Lisa and Cecily, the latter’s husband, Aiden, and the Branlow staff. Did he then turn “Atticus Pünd Takes the Case” into a kind of roman a clef? Conway delighted in anagrams, wordplay and subtle verbal clues that few readers would notice. As Susan tells us, “he could have spelled out the name of the killer in the chapter headings.” So after interviewing everyone even faintly connected to Branlow Hall, including some old friends in London, Susan finally settles down with the novel that led to Cecily’s disappearance.
At which point, on what would have been Page 229 of “Moonflower Murders,” the reader comes upon the cover of the 2016 Orion paperback edition of “Atticus Pünd Takes the Case.” There follows an author-biography of Alan Conway, a list of the eight other books in the Atticus Pünd series, a dedication page — “For Frank and Leo: in remembrance” — and a dozen quotes and blurbs about the book, such as this one from thriller writer Lee Child: “A famous actress is strangled and who’s the suspect? Everyone! The latest Atticus Pünd is a real blast.”
The next 224 pages reprint Conway’s entire novel, a classic country-house whodunit, featuring a half dozen suspects who slightly recall people we have met at Branlow Hall. But is it significant that they are all assigned the last names of detective story authors, as most readers, including Susan, will notice? Whatever the case, one eagerly follows Pünd’s investigations to their final, astonishing conclusion, while simultaneously puzzling over possible clues to the death of Frank Parris and the disappearance of Cecily Treherne.
If all this sounds dizzyingly postmodern, it is and it isn’t. Horowitz’s plotting certainly rivals that of Ruth Rendell’s notoriously complex Barbara Vine mysteries, yet his prose moves along as briskly as that of Dick Francis at his best. Moreover, the whole metafictional twistiness of his current work — “The Word Is Murder” includes Anthony Horowitz himself as a major character — actually carries on from the gamelike nature of Golden Age whodunitry.
For instance, in the 1929 classic “The Poisoned Chocolates Case,” Anthony Berkeley proffers six different solutions to the same crime. In John Dickson Carr’s “The Three Coffins,” Dr. Gideon Fell comes right out and admits that he is only a character in a novel. Not least, exactly 100 years ago Agatha Christie brought out “The Mysterious Affair at Styles,” the first demonstration of its author’s breathtaking, narrative sleight-of-hand.
In his latest books, Horowitz — long admired for creating the television series “Foyle’s War” and “Midsomer Murders,” as well as the Alex Rider spy thrillers for young people — showcases a cleverness and finesse that even Dame Agatha might envy. “Moonflower Murders” resembles a super Mobius strip, interlacing multiple degrees and levels of fictiveness. Susan’s story, for instance, seems “realer” than Alan Conway’s novel, though both were created by Horowitz, who draws on his own life for certain plot details. But I should say no more about what happens. Just bear in mind that the ultimate motives for homicide often go way back into the past, even to childhood. To quote that apt, and haunting, line from the Irish poet George Russell: “In the lost boyhood of Judas, Christ was betrayed.”
Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.
HarperCollins. 608 pp. $28.99