“The thing about you, Tony, is you write stuff down without even realizing its significance. You’re a bit like a travel writer who doesn’t know quite where he is.”
Is there any modern author who embraces the style, tropes and fashions of classic crime fiction more frequently or creatively than Anthony Horowitz? Whether it’s in his work for television (several episodes of Poirot, Foyle’s War, etc.), his continuation novels for Sherlock Holmes and James Bond, or his young adult mysteries and thrillers, Horowitz has got the rules of the Golden Age down!
Over the last few years, he has come up with two of my favorite books: The Magpie Murders (2016) and The Word Is Murder (2017). Even better, these two novels occupy two different worlds, each with a charmingly complex premise. In Magpie, we are treated to two mysteries in one, each set in a different time frame. The modern day tale features Susan Ryeland, who is in no way a sleuth until she has to be. Rather, she is an editor for a small publishing firm whose most prestigious client writes a series of classic mysteries featuring a Poirot-like private detective named Atticus Pünd. Susan’s plunge into crime-solving runs side by side with the latest – in fact, the final – Pünd mystery, which happens to be missing its final chapter. (I discussed it in greater detail here.)
In Magpie, Horowitz takes great pleasure in crafting a pastiche of the past, all while poking light fun at classic crimes’ popularity. With The Word Is Murder he gets even more meta. This book is purportedly set in the “real” world and concerns a disgraced policeman turned private detective named Daniel Hawthorne who still consults with the Yard on difficult murder cases and who decides to take on a Watson/Bosworth figure to follow him around and write about his exploits. And this beleaguered assistant is no other than – writer Anthony Horowitz! Here is my review for that one. When I wrote it, I started it off with the question: Why isn’t Anthony Horowitz writing the Poirot continuation novels? That question still seethes in my mind as I eagerly await the arrival on my doorstep of the second Susan Ryeland/Atticus Pünd novel (yep, it looks like it may be a series!), The Moonflower Murders. Meanwhile, Horowitz has plans to make a longer series out of the Hawthorne/Horowitz partnership, and so it’s high time I read the second one in that series, The Sentence Is Death.
There are two aspects of this book to discuss. The first is, of course, the mystery proper itself. This time, Hawthorne has been asked to look into the death of a highly prominent divorce attorney, and he ropes Horowitz into assisting him (mainly for the purposes of writing a second book about the P.I.) by driving onto the highly fraught set of Foyle’s Warduring an extremely difficult shoot. Despite the trouble Hawthorne caused him the first time, including nearly getting him killed, Anthony agrees to follow him around, secretly hoping to not only solve the mystery before the sleuth does, but also to uncover some of the secrets about Hawthorne that were teased out in the first book.
The suspect list includes the victim’s unfaithful boyfriend, a previous client, and some very angry ex-wives. Along the way, the pair uncover a second death that occurred the day before in a crowded Tube station. The two incidents are clearly connected and may have something to do with a past tragedy that involved both dead men.
That’s enough plot. Suffice it to say that Horowitz plays fair, that he provides interesting clues that are more than likely to lead us, along with Anthony, down the garden path. (It certainly happened to me, although I did correctly guess a few minor secrets.) If there’s a certain sameness to the tone of this mystery with the first book, it’s the only tiny glitch in the whole proceeding. Well, one other thing: Horowitz has cast himself as the dimwitted Watson figure, and it’s mostly very funny. But he is treated abominably, and in this second go-round, some of the things that happen to him border on cruelty that somehow plunked me right back to the schoolyard and those bullies who used to torment me. I know the author is having fun with a tried and true convention, and much of what happens here is very clever. It just seemed to go a bit too far for my tastes here and there.
What really grabs me about the Hawthorne books is the second aspect – the meta-fiction that Horowitz creates here from start to finish (including the very funny acknowledgements.) He offers us a window into his real life, both personal and professional. His wife hates being a character in the book and doesn’t much like her husband’s association with a potential sociopath like Hawthorne. His literary agent Hilda listens to Horowitz’ pitch for this very novel and asks why the victim has to be a lawyer.
“I don’t think readers will give a damn about a divorce lawyer, she said. “Can’t you make him something more interesting . . . like an actor or a musician?”
“It was an actor who got killed last time,” I reminded her. “And anyway it doesn’t work like that. I don’t have any choice in the matter. I’m just writing what happens.”
“Oh, yes.” She was gloomy.
I love the way Horowitz skirts with reality in moments like this. At one point, he and Hawthorne travel to Yorkshire to explore a possible lead. What they uncover is quite interesting, but back at home, as he is putting their adventure to paper, “Horowitz” the character worries that the whole thing might be a red herring and a waste of space. Throughout the book he ponders what to include and what to leave out. I imagine every mystery writer grapples with these issues: how much red herring do you include? How do you insert a clue so that it “hides in plain sight?” How do you manage to play fair with a reader and yet trick him?
Clearly, Horowitz has got these issues down pat. As a result, I think I’m going to watch Foyle’s War all over again. (Maybe I’ll write about it this time!) And I can’t help being excited at the possibility that, for the next few years at least, I might get to switch back and forth from Atticus Pünd to Daniel Hawthorne for a while. A fella could do a lot worse.