One Whodunit Nests Inside Another in ‘Moonflower Murders’

The private detective Atticus Pünd appears to have stepped directly from the pages of a classic golden-age mystery and into Anthony Horowitz’s new novel, “Moonflower Murders.” Brilliant, arrogant, indisputably foreign, Pünd prides himself on understanding the inner workings of the human psyche, and is prone to dropping aphoristic bon mots. “The more obvious the answer, the more difficult it can be to find,” he declares.

But here’s the thing about Pünd: He’s not technically a character in Horowitz’s book, but a character in another book, “Atticus Pünd Takes the Case,” which is inside the first book. Yes, there are two novels here — one an old-fashioned whodunit, the other a modern meta-story — meaning that what we are reading can literally be described as a mystery wrapped in an enigma. How these books speak to each other is one of many puzzles ripe for solving.

Horowitz himself is a bit of a mystery. How can a person (other than Stephen King) be this prolific and this consistently entertaining? Horowitz, who created the television series “Foyle’s War” and wrote most of its episodes, is also the author of various young-adult book series, including the wildly popular Alex Rider spy novels and the “Power of Five” fantasy novels; a pair each of Sherlock Holmes and James Bond novels, written in the styles of their original authors and to my mind just as satisfying; and a number of fiendishly clever stand-alone adult mysteries, including two in which he himself appears as a character, playing the sidekick to a Holmes-like detective.

There are also plays, screenplays and many episodes of the TV series “Midsomer Murders” (which he also created). Perhaps Horowitz considers writing “Moonflower Murders” a relaxing break from all those other things? Probably not. It’s a richly plotted, head-spinning novel about a present-day disappearance, a murder eight years earlier and a fictional murder that may be relevant to both. It is not an example of an author phoning something in.

The story begins in Crete, where Susan Ryeland, the 40-something British book editor who featured in a previous Horowitz novel, “Magpie Murders,” has given up publishing to run a small hotel with her boyfriend, Andreas. A British couple named Lawrence and Pauline Treherne, the owners of Branlow Hall, a (much fancier) hotel on the Suffolk coast, arrive with an enticing proposition: They will pay her 10,000 pounds to help locate their daughter, Cecily, who has inexplicably disappeared.

Why Susan? Before vanishing, Cecily told her parents some startling news about a murder that took place in the hotel in 2008: The man convicted of the crime and now languishing in prison was not in fact guilty. She found the proof, she said, in the novel “Atticus Pünd Takes the Case,” the third in a series by the late novelist Alan Conway and, it seems, a coded fictional reinterpretation of the crime. The book’s editor? Susan Ryeland.

The Trehernes suggest that maybe Susan can study the book, find the real murderer, and in the process discover what happened to Cecily. “You worked with the author,” Lawrence says. “I’m sure there are things that might occur to you that we haven’t noticed.”

Maybe, maybe not. Susan remembers Conway, a supercilious jerk, all too well. He liked to conceal puns, anagrams and allusive flourishes within his prose, and she agrees to the Trehernes’ proposal, which involves scouring the book for clues and re-interviewing the people relevant to the original crime, and possibly to Cecily’s disappearance, back in Suffolk.

All this makes us want to try our own luck at literary detection. We’ll read the book and solve the mystery! But Horowitz doesn’t get to “Atticus Pünd Takes the Case” until midway through “Moonflower Murders.” Until then, Susan meets the interested parties and is greeted with the requisite hostility, evasiveness and prevarication.

“I didn’t believe a single word he was saying to me, and the strange thing was, I don’t think he wanted me to,” she says of one of her interviewees, the outwardly charming brother-in-law of the original murder victim. (The man’s wife surely doesn’t want Susan nosing around. “Just go away,” she hisses.)

Just as we’re beginning to make sense of the elaborate tale of Cecily, her husband and their French nanny; the Trehernes’ bitter, less-attractive other daughter; and assorted sketchy relatives, neighbors and hotel workers, we get to “Atticus Pünd Takes the Case” and plunge headlong into another reality.

This second full novel comes with its own title page, dedication, author’s bio and compilation of vacuously favorable endorsements destined to make a book reviewer feel a little sheepish. (“Lock the door, curl up in front of the fire and get into the latest Alan Conway,” says the fake blurb from Good Housekeeping magazine. “It won’t disappoint.”)

Conway’s novel, set in the 1950s, features a beautiful aging actress with a handsome younger husband and a good chance of landing a leading part in Hitchcock’s next movie, “Dial M for Murder.” Sadly, she is bludgeoned to death before she has a chance to meet with the director. (Grace Kelly will end up getting the job.)

Alert readers will admire the way Pünd, the detective hired to investigate, recalls the great Hercule Poirot, and how the story itself feels like a return to the cozy mysteries of our youth. (Conway “revered Agatha Christie and often stole ideas from her,” Susan notes.) But I doubt reading “Atticus Pünd Takes the Case” will help you solve the mystery in “Moonflower Murders” any more than it helped me. The reader’s feeble flashes of understanding are no match for Horowitz’s brand of three-dimensional chess, and the answers will be uncovered only through Susan’s expert textual analysis.

The book (the real, full book by Horowitz, that is) is too long and almost too labyrinthine. But getting lost in the weeds can be excellent fun, especially when the characters start trashing the very genre in which they’re appearing.

“I thought it was the usual load of rubbish,” the clueless police officer assigned to the case says of Conway’s work. “You know my views on detective fiction.”

Even Susan, having reread the novel she herself edited, cheerfully rehearses its narrative problems, reveals what she and the copy editor (unsuccessfully) asked the author to change and grouses about Conway’s general unpleasantness as a writer and a human.

But she admires it all, despite herself. “There’s something very satisfying about a complicated whodunit that actually makes sense,” she says.

Yes, indeed.

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