Created by Anthony Horowitz
I’m a long-time admirer of Anthony Horowitz’ crime fiction, both in print and on television. It’s clear from his joyfully cock-eyed spins on some of the genre’s most beloved tropes and the countless bodies he’s gleefully left in his wake over a long career, that Horowitz doesn’t just write this stuff. He’s a fan as well.
But nothing prepared me for 2017’s magnificent Magpie Murders, a swirl of book-within-a-book tilt-a-whirl meta-cleverness set within the incestuous British mystery world of publishing and television that Horowitz calls home. So when I heard he was going to dip into the meta pool again, I was more than willing to take a chance…
But The Word is Murder (2018), despite a nifty cover, left me surprisingly disappointed. After Magpie’s success, I guess Horowitz felt the next logical step was to make himself the main character and first person narrator. A Watson to a to-be-named Sherlock.
It wasn’t a good idea.
Oh, the mystery itself is serviceable enough, and the set-up is a good one. A wealthy woman of a certain age visits a funeral parlor to arrange a pre-paid service for herself — a macabre but not unheard of practice. But then she’s murdered later the same day.
Not that it concerns Horowitz, at first. Until DANIEL HAWTHORNE, a disgraced former cop who’s as prickly as his surname suggests, pops up. Hawthorne, now working as a private “consultant” has been called in by his former employers to investigate Cowper’s murder. The cocky detective, with whom Horowitz is supposedly familiar due to some technical consulting he once did on some of Horowitz’s TV shows, makes his pitch to the writer.
“Write a book about my investigation,” Hawthorne suggests, “and we’ll split the take fifty-fifty.”
Horowitz isn’t exactly in love with the idea — he doesn’t particularly like Hawthorne. And it’s plain to see why. The former cop is an abrasive loner prone to disturbingly racist and homophobic outbursts. But Horowitz is also fascinated by the detective’s almost Holmes-like deductive chops. Against his better judgement, Horowitz is drawn into the case, although he keeps it a secret from his wife… and his publisher.
It might have worked if Horowitz, the blundering sidekick, had been anyone but Horowitz himself. The mystery itself is tricky enough, and twisty enough, and the solution fair enough. But Horowitz thrusting himself into the action, no matter how much self-deprecating humility is spread about, is an unnecessary distraction, coming off as, alternately, an awkward attempt at self-branding or a colossal, self-serving egofest. I don’t buy it. It’s just too wink-wink meta for me. Too cute by half.
Nor does it help that Hawthorne himself is such an unlikeable asshole. He remains hard to pin down, beyond his general unpleasantness–a fact Horowitz himself frequently mentions in his play-by-play, like the book was some sort of reality show. Or was it a pre-emptive strike against critics?
Maybe that’s the crux of the problem. The sleight-of-hand that is required to shuffle Horowitz from character to narrator to author is awkward and disconcerting, like the special effects in an old sci-fi B-flick. The wires are too obvious and the story never quite good enough to make us ignore them.
But what do I know?
Apparently folks loved The Word is Murder, and the critics ate it up. So naturally Hawthorne returned in The Sentence is Death (2019), and Horowitz, inexplicably, is once more trailing after Hawthorne as he investigates the murder of a notorious divorce lawyer and A Line to Kill (2021), wherein Horowitz and Hawthorne are off to a small literary festival on the Channel island of Alderney, where murder once more–predictably, by now–rears its ugly head. By now, however, the gimmick is perhaps wearing thin, with Maxim Jakubowski of Crime Time suggesting that “maybe our uneasy duo have taken on a case too many and now lack the original freshness and verve of their personal dynamic.”
Me? It’s all just a tad too smugly meta for my tastes, but as always, I may be missing the point. It’s now become a full-fledged series.
- The Word is Murder (2017) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- The Sentence is Death (2019) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- A Line to Kill (2021) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- The Twist of a Knife (2022) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. Portions of this entry were published in Mystery Scene.