CAN A MYSTERY WRITER be too clever for his own good? Anthony Horowitz is determined to find out. The veteran British writer has created a new and compelling style of detective fiction: a mystery novel that is peculiarly meta.
Horowitz, for those not up on their BBC crime doyens, is the author of several stand-alone mystery novels and YA series, including the popular Alex Rider books about a boy recruited by MI6. He’s also penned two Sherlock Holmes and two James Bond novels, all four sanctioned by their creator’s respective estates. Then there’s Anthony Horowitz the very successful television writer, whose credits include Midsomer Murders (he created the series, which has passed its 20th season) and Foyle’s War (which ran from 2002 to 2015). Both shows are available for streaming. And, if that’s not enough, he’s currently at work on the screenplay for the new Tintin movie, to be directed by Peter Jackson.
That’s just a small portion of his CV. The man is amazingly prolific.
The Sentence Is Death is the second installment of his latest series, Hawthorne Investigates (which is not actually the series name but, as a maybe fictional version of Steven Spielberg notes in the first book, it should be). The premise, introduced in The Word Is Murder, is both familiar and tantalizingly original. Anthony Horowitz — the book’s actual author and fictional narrator — is approached by a one-time police consultant on his BBC series Injustice (which aired five episodes in 2011) with an unusual proposition.
Former detective Daniel Hawthorne, despite having been officially ousted, still works for London’s Metropolitan Police Force as an outside contractor. He gets called in for, in his words,
the tiny amount of murders, maybe only two percent, that are pre-meditated. They’re planned. They might be a contract killing or some nutter who’s doing it for fun. The police always know. They know when they’ve got a sticker. And that’s what they call this type of murder. And that’s why they reach out to someone like me …
He proposes that when one of these “stickers” presents itself, he call Horowitz. Horowitz will follow him around, keep a record of the case and, once solved, turn it into a true crime book. They’ll split the profits 50/50. Essentially, he’s looking for a Watson to his Holmes. A Nick Carraway to his (admittedly somewhat shabby) Gatsby. A Captain Hastings to his Poirot. Horowitz, despite very real reservations, not least being Hawthorne’s insistence on calling him “Tony,” agrees. The Word Is Murder, released in 2018, was the first offspring of this unlikely and entirely fictional partnership.
Unlikely, because Horowitz doesn’t particularly like Hawthorne, who, admittedly, isn’t a very likable man. He’s rude, condescending, fiercely private for someone who wants to be profiled in a book, distrusting, and homophobic. There are attempts to make him more sympathetic. Far too many references, for example, to “glimpses of the child he’d been.” But they’re not very successful. Particularly when compared to Anthony Horowitz, who is so charming and animated that he practically performs a soft-shoe across the page. Horowitz also benefits from an exceedingly convincing backstory — and why shouldn’t he? — so much so that when stood side-by-side Hawthorne comes across as flat and gray, at a decided disadvantage.
This is a series, so it is best to read the books in order. It may not be strictly necessary to have read The Word Is Murder to enjoy The Sentence Is Death, but you’ll miss out on some funny inside jokes referencing the events of the first book if you don’t. Suffice to say that despite solving their first case together, the relationship between the two men remains antagonistic. So, when Hawthorne approaches Horowitz with a new case, Tony doesn’t exactly leap at the opportunity. And, yet, “my new publisher — Selina Walker at Random House — had insisted on a three-book contract and, urged by my agent, I had agreed.”
Feeling he’s left with little choice, Horowitz once again partners with Hawthorne and the two men set out to solve the mystery of who killed celebrity divorce lawyer Richard Pryce. Pryce was found brutally murdered, stabbed repeatedly in the throat with the remains of a very expensive bottle of wine, in his home. Was it his art gallery owning husband? The literati darling and bitter ex-wife of a happy client? The old friend who visited Pryce seeking help, only to die under suspicious circumstances the next day? And what, if anything, does it have to do with the number 182, which was painted on a wall next to the victim? Or with a tragic spelunking (yes, you read that correctly: spelunking) accident that occurred six years before?
Part of Horowitz’s charm is that he, like his readers, is in love with books. It’s probably part of what makes him so appealing to literary estates. Page by page he builds a solid case against the murderer, using all the conventional methods and the occasional well-worn trope of the genre. His suspects are a well-drawn, motley bunch. The chapters are filled with reams of dialogue. There’s a bumbling, but conscientious, police detective in the first book who is replaced by a pair of equally bumbling, but this time openly hostile, police detectives in the second. Expect a barrel of red herrings and lots of corpses. Fans of Midsomer Murders will know that there’s never just one death. In fact, it’s often the cover-up murder that provides the clue that cracks the case.
Within the confines of the form, Horowitz also demonstrates a deep knowledge of Literature with a capital L. A lot of thought has been put into these books, conceptually and structurally. Even their individual titles are plays on words which become significant as the stories unfold. There are references to Shakespeare in The Word Is Murder and Doyle in The Sentence Is Death. (The logical conclusion is that Dickens will somehow feature into the third installment … though wouldn’t it be nice if he went with Jane Austen instead?) Horowitz reaches deep into his writer’s bag of tricks, not only becoming a character in his own novel, but speaking directly to the reader about the secrets of his profession. Two paragraphs describing the logistics of writing and filming a chase scene serve as both prologue and apology “for what I must now describe.”
I was in my fifties, on foot, and although I think I’m fairly fit, I was no action hero. The man I was chasing was younger and skinnier than me but his smoking habit had played havoc with his health. From the start, he didn’t run so much as limp and it would have taken a director with incredible talent, even with all the money in the world, to make the next few minutes remotely watchable.
What follows is, quite possibly, one of the saddest foot chases ever written. It is a highlight of the book.
There were clues that Horowitz was heading in this direction for readers who were paying attention. Recent novels where he tested the water. 2016’s best-selling Magpie Murders is narrated by a literary editor dealing with a difficult, but successful, crime writer whom she comes to suspect is involved in a murder. It features a novel within a novel. The second Arthur Conan Doyle Estate sanctioned Sherlock Holmes project, Moriarty (2014), is as gleefully devious as its titular namesake, breaking the fourth wall and spinning readers around so many times that they no longer know which way is up. Making himself the protagonist in his own series was the next logical permutation. While it’s not unprecedented — Hitchcock is known for his film cameos, and Michel Houellebecq orchestrated his own murder in The Map and the Territory — Horowitz takes it to the next level.
Because, despite what he’s said in interviews, Horowitz is undoubtedly the star of the series. More Nick Carraway than John Watson, he has an indecent amount of fun being a character in his own book. He fearlessly co-opts friends, colleagues, and family members to serve his plot. He sets up business meetings with Hollywood celebrities. He brings us to film locations and lunches with his agent. In one of the funniest scenes in The Sentence Is Death, we visit his favorite London bookshop. He describes the hierarchy of literary festivals. He discusses his writing projects, real and imagined, without making distinctions. I visited IMDB to confirm that he’s writing the screenplay for the second Tintin film, The Adventures of Tintin: Prisoners of the Sun, information I questioned based on a scene from The Word Is Murder in which Hawthorne interrupts a lunch meeting with Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg. I looked up his literary agent and am sad to report that it is not the delightfully no-nonsense Hilda Starke, who steals every scene in which she appears. Horowitz has succeeded in confounding his readers as to what is real versus what is real in his books, an impressive feat few people have managed since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
But it comes at a cost. All of this is accomplished at the expense of Detective Daniel Hawthorne, who remains a supporting character despite his invariably being the one to solve the case. By the end of The Sentence Is Death some of the details are filled in, but the man himself remains frustratingly elusive. A nondescript figure in a white shirt carrying an overcoat over one arm who, we’re made to understand, is hiding dark secrets. Horowitz walks a fine line between teasing out a mysterious past and relegating his proclaimed star actor to the wings.
Sherlock Holmes is not a particularly elusive figure. We possess a remarkable amount of knowledge about his habits and history. We’re given far more information, in fact, than Dr. Watson reveals about his own life. There is also a warmth in the good Doctor’s descriptions of his friend, someone who he patently both admires and loves.
Hawthorne gets none of that. Rather than admiring, Horowitz is mostly annoyed by the man. We are never privy to Hawthorne’s inner thoughts and barely make inroads into his personal life. All exacerbated by the fact that his creator has a tendency to run off and attempt to solve things on his own, getting into ridiculous (and entertaining) scrapes in the process. The Sentence Is Death is a much funnier book than its predecessor, but it brings us only a little bit closer in our understanding of Hawthorne.
Of course, the series is still young. As Hawthorne tells the disgruntled Tony at one point:
“Early days, mate. It’s only your first chapter. You can tear it up and start again. The thing is, we got to find a way of working together. A … uh…” he searched for the right phrase.
“A modus operandi,” I suggested.
He pointed a finger, “You don’t want to use posh words like that. You’ll just get people’s backs up.”
All of this could easily be rectified in the next book, and Hawthorne take his rightful place in the pantheon of the great literary detectives. But will it? Will he? Horowitz shows no signs of ceding the spotlight. He’s having too much fun and, as a result, so are his readers. There’s a reality television component to his story that’s oddly reassuring and agreeable. Leading us to wonder whether the true title of this series is Anthony Horowitz Investigates.