This novel uses the book within a book structure. Susan Ryeland, editor for a publishing company, receives the latest instalment of the Atticus Pünd mystery series written by Alan Conway. The reader gets to read this cozy county murder story. When the end of the manuscript is reached, Ryeland ends up investigating a mystery involving that draft and its author.
The book is fairly lengthy but the reader gets two books for the price of one. Horowitz is clever in intertwining the two narratives. Each has multiple suspects and there are even parallels between the novel written by Conway and his life and between the mysteries Pünd must solve and the one Ryeland sets out to investigate.
I preferred the Pünd mystery primarily because I liked the detective. As is often the case with series featuring a detective like Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes or Vera Standhope or Harry Hole or Erlendur Sveinsson, the reader finds that the detective him/herself is part of the appeal. Pünd, a Ben Kingsley lookalike, is “a German refugee who had managed to survive the war after spending a year in one of Hitler’s concentration camps.” He has James Fraser as a sidekick, an assistant “whose loyalty and good humour had never failed him, even if he had never helped very much when it came to the investigation of crime.”
Ryeland is a much less interesting character; in particular, she is not particularly intelligent. She admits to being “a poor choice of narrator/investigator. Quite apart from the fact that I’m completely unqualified, I may not actually be all that good. . . . Sadly, I have no Watson, no Hastings, no Troy, no Bunter, no Lewis.” The identity of the murderer is obviously revealed less than half way through, but she misses it. When attacked by someone who has just admitted to having killed a person, Ryeland says, “I was so shocked, so taken by surprise that it actually took me a few moments to work out what had happened.” Really?!
Ryeland is less interesting and her mystery and investigation are as well. The motive for the murder obviously emphasizes the entrapment of a successful detective fiction writer but the perpetrator is not sufficiently developed and so is not convincing. And would anyone really give a murderer several days “grace” before notifying the police? I also disliked Ryeland’s heavy-handed statements like, “I began to read the book as you are about to. But before you do that, I have to warn you. This book changed my life. . . . I hope I don’t need to spell it out any more. Unlike me, you have been warned” and “If I had just worked a little harder, I would have realised that the clue I had been seeking was actually there, that somebody had said something to me, quite recently, that had identified them as the killer . . . Just half an hour more might have made all the difference in the world. . . . It was going to cost me dear” (191).
What is interesting is that Horowitz explores the relationship between a mystery writer and his creation. It turns out that Alan Conway has come to dislike Atticus Pünd and wants to write serious literary fiction. He is like Agatha Christie who came to dislike Poirot and wanted to write different stories with new characters, "But her agents and publishers, who were in charge of the pounds and pence, were very keen on Poirot. He was her most popular character. The result, says [Christie’s grandson], was that Dame Agatha continued to ‘churn out’ Poirot whodunnits” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/devon/hi/people_and_places/arts_and_culture/newsid_9131000/9131482stm). Likewise, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle complained that “Holmes takes my mind from better things” and “Doyle’s heart was never really in detective fiction. Nevertheless the stories were phenomenally popular in Britain and America and overshadowed everything else Doyle would ever write” (https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/arthur-conan-doyle-the-creator-of-sherlock-holmes-the-worlds-most-famous-literary-detective). Conan Doyle even had to bring Holmes back from the dead because of a public outcry. Conway, like these real writers of detective fiction, finds himself trapped by a fictional character, readers and the publishing industry.
Horowitz wrote an interesting classic mystery very much in the Agatha Christie style. The contemporary mystery featuring Ryeland is less successful, especially because it is solved using coincidence. “I don’t like coincidences in novels, and particularly not in murder mysteries, which work because of logic and calculation. The detective really should be able to reach his conclusion without having providence on his side.”