“It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma . . .” That’s the quote* that came to mind while I was reading Moonflower Murders. The inner section of the book is a complete mystery novel “written” by Alan Conway and featuring his popular sleuth Atticus Pünd. The outer chapters are narrated by Susan Ryeland, Conway’s erstwhile editor. She’s turned sleuth (again) to solve both the mysterious disappearance of a young woman, Cecily Treherne, and an earlier murder, of a guest named Frank Parris, at the hotel Cecily’s family owns. A man is serving time for the murder, but Cecily believed that the clues to the “real” murderer were embedded in Conway’s book.
As a reader, I accepted the challenge of looking for clues, in both the outer and inner stories. As Susan says: “You have to remember that Alan hid things in the text: not just anagrams, but acrostics, acronyms, words within words. He did it partly to amuse himself but often to indulge the more unpleasant side of his nature . . . If Alan, during his brief visit to the hotel, had somehow discovered who had really killed Frank Parris, he could have spelled out the name of the killer in the chapter headings. Something had caught Cecily Treherne’s eye . . .”
In this second book in the Susan Ryeland series, Conway can’t be of assistance; he was bumped off in the first book. Cecily’s parents think that Susan, as Conway’s editor, has the skill set to solve these mysteries; the local police certainly haven’t been up to the task. The Trehernes sweeten the pot with ten thousand pounds, money Susan could use to keep her current venture—a hotel in Crete—from going bust.
In keeping with the “meta” nature of Moonflower Murders, there’s a fair bit of amusing commentary on the value of crime fiction. As Susan tells the local copper, when he rails against the genre that “trivializes crime”:
I think you’ve always been mistaken about crime fiction, Detective Chief Superintendent . . . I don’t think Alan’s books ever did anyone any harm – except me. People enjoyed them and they knew perfectly well what they were getting when they read them. Not real life so much as an escape from it – and God knows we’re all in need of that right now . . . Maybe there’s something a little comforting in a book that actually makes sense of the world in which it takes place and leads you to an absolute truth.
Later, though, when Susan begins to re-read the book she’d taken such pains to edit years before, she admits: “I was perfectly aware of the identity of the killer in the novel and I remembered all the clues. I think it would be fair to say that a whodunit is one of the very few forms of literature that rarely merit a second read.”
She may be right about that. But my first (only?) read of Moonflower Murders was a satisfying blend of puzzle solving (I managed to guess the identity of a murderer in the Atticus Pünd book) and escapist enjoyment.
*Wondering who said it? I was, too. It was Winston Churchill, in a 1939 speech about the Soviet Union. In the weird web of coincidences that I have come to accept and expect in my reading life, the next book on my list is Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile, which is about Churchill and the Battle of Britain, 1940-1941.