- - Thursday, August 3, 2017

The ghost of Agatha Christie hovers over “The Magpie Murders,” Anthony Horowitz’s dark and deft mystery. It is not a thriller, it is too clever for that.

The image of magpies clustered in a tree is the kind of gently ghoulish humor that characterized Christie’s work, yet this is a much more complicated and sophisticated portrayal of her favorite topic of death and sin in a small village. And its double-barreled plot further complicates the scene.

It is more of what used too be called a closed door mystery where answers are clouded and the unexpected becomes the inevitable. Mr. Horowitzh’s literary skills in this field are long established and his reputation is notable for his brilliant work in the television series “Foyle’s War” and his contributions to the wildly popular “Midsomer Murders” TV series. He is particularly good at projecting atmosphere as in the reaction to war on the part of the general public in World War II and his conjuring up of the sinister amid the simplicity of idyllic English towns touched by murder — usually more than one.

In this collection there is a formidable array of characters, from the eccentric detective Atticus Pund and his echoes of Hercule Poirot to Susan Ryeland, a literary agent trapped in an unexpected peril in her work. The deaths are also Agatha Christie-like, from the nasty village squire whose head gets cut off to his bitter sister deprived of her birthright and the inquisitive housekeeper whose body is found at the foot of the stairs in the ancestral mansion The mansion is called Pye Hall, which is another Christie touch. As is the name of the village, Saxby on Avon.

Complications abound, as when the detective discovers that he is dying of cancer and that the case of the housekeeper in Pye Hall will be his last case. He is busy completing the notes in which he names the murderer when he dies in a fall from the roof of his palatial home, or was he pushed? The reader has to pay attention because unraveling the web of who did what to whom roams from character to character and many doubts about their credibility. Not only whether they are telling the truth but whether they are who they say they are.

In “The Magpie Murders” there is even the tragedy of a dead dog whose brutal passing by having its throat cut is more than enough to darken the lives of two children. One of the children turns out to be possibly insane as well as homicidal, but that is one of the secrets lurking in the shadows of the book’s denouement.

Susan Ryeland, the hapless literary agent who is accustomed to dealing with killings on a computer or a typewriter finds herself imperiled in a matter she never expected, with danger lurking far closer to her home than she might have expected. Mr. Horowitz is not a simple writer and this is no simple mystery, but it is most enjoyable to read and its conclusions never disappoint. Perhaps the only problem is trying to keep up with the plot which is like investigating a spider web..

It is obvious that the author relishes the wicked twists with which he embellishes his plot and his writing recalls what used to be dubbed the golden age of mystery when writers such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers flourished.

It is probably safe to say that Christie would have appreciated Mr. Horowitz’s use of her portrayal of an updated England and would have enjoyed his smooth and dark humor.

• Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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By Anthony Horowitz
Harper, $27.99, 496 pages

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