Book review by Eric Sandberg
Anthony Horowitz is a clever Dick...er, Tony. His name made its first attempt at penetrating my hardened transom some years ago as it appeared on my television screen as the writer of various TV episodes of Poirot and Midsomer Murders [this was before opening credits meant one last peek at Facebook before a grisly murder occurs].
It wasn't until Foyle's War, a show I looked forward to as much as a new series of Inspector Lewis, that the name Anthony Horowitz achieved a foothold in my addled pate. Even then I was more in awe of the remarkable performance of Michael Kitchen than I was of the writer putting words in his mouth.
The first book I purchased by Horowitz was not for myself, but for my father, who is a fan of Foyle's War and, as a young man, loved reading Ian Fleming's James Bond. As Trigger Mortis promised to contain original material by Fleming and was written in the style of the original novels (no futuristic gadgets or metal-mouthed giants chomping on tram cables), I thought he would enjoy it, and he very much did.
A few years ago, I heard a radio interview with Horowitz who was describing the plot of his then forthcoming novel The Magpie Murders. A book editor becomes embroiled in the murder of her most popular writer while clues abound as to the identity of the killer in the victim's final, yet to be published manuscript. A book within a book. That was enough for me.
Anglophile that I am [I briefly got the taste of living in London as a ten year old in the early 70s] I ordered the book from Amazon UK before some US editor could 'translate' the dialogue from delightful idioms such as "Go on in and 'av a butcher's" ['Go inside and have a look for yourself']. The book was nearly impossible to put down — complex threads woven into an easy read. I had barely finished it when I saw a new murder mystery from Anthony Horowitz was imminent.
The Word Is Murder promised a new, hook: one of the two main protagonists would be Horowitz himself. As he narrates his own story, Horowitz introduces us to the latest in a long line of brilliant, quirky English detectives, Daniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne is an ex-police detective, fired from the force for mishandling a prisoner, but is called in to consult whenever a case is a "sticker — that is, a case which presented obvious difficulties from the start."
In Daniel Hawthorne, Horowitz has created another intriguing, inscrutable, imperfect character, shrouded in mystery but, like all the best literary detectives, is always three steps ahead of everybody else. Hawthorne's [seemingly uncharacteristic] desire to have his exploits chronicled by a biographer leads Horowitz to become Watson to Hawthorne's Holmes.
Of course Dr. John Watson is as much a fictional character as Sherlock Holmes, but Horowitz is a real person and he cleverly adapts real aspects of his life into the story. In one memorable scene Hawthorne interrupts a critical meeting Horowitz is taking with Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg about Horowitz's rejected screenplay for the next Tin Tin movie.
Throughout the book the fictional Horowitz wrestles between his common sense telling him he should not not be involved with Hawthorne, and his extreme curiosity about this gruff, intrusive and brilliant detective. It is this curiosity, and an unhealthy itch to solve the case before Hawthorne, that nearly gets him killed — which begs the question: if you die in your novel, what happens to the real you?
The real Anthony Horowitz
Another aspect of Hawthorne's character that the fictional Horowitz must endure is the blatant homophobia Hawthorne exhibits as he questions witnesses and suspects that appear to scrum for the other team. Horowitz's discomfort is ours as well and this keeps these books from from being too precious and makes us all the more curious about Hawthorne's murky past.
At the opening of the second Hawthorne novel, The Sentence Is Death, Horowitz again intertwines his real life with the story, describing in elaborate detail what goes into creating one simple scene in an episode of Foyle's War, in which real life actress Honeysuckle Weeks steps off of a period bus. One thing after another goes wrong and, as time is running out, the film crew's one chance at a successful take is spoiled by the sudden appearance of you know who in a modern taxi.
Another sticky murder has occurred and Hawthorne has been called in to consult. Even with urgent script rewrites, his agent breathing down his neck for a sequel to his Sherlock Holmes novel, The House of Silk, fictional Horowitz can't resist a new game being afoot. It's another complex case, full of red herrings, widows, ex wives, spelunkers, lawyers, businessmen, and a couple of unpleasant cops who do not want to be embarrassed by Hawthorne.
As the investigation progresses, fictional Horowitz continues to conduct his own clandestine inquiry into the mystery of Hawthorne. He uncovers one secret that explains an aspect of Hawthorne's mystique, only to encounter something else that only deepens the mystery of his past.
As in The Word Is Murder, the solution to the murder was unexpected, though the clues were all there. My one quibble with this story was a particular secret uncovered by Hawthorne [a red herring] that the real Anthony Horowitz, writing the book, perhaps over-telegraphed. It didn't quite ring true that the fictional Horowitz was gobsmacked by a revelation that most astute readers had sussed out a few chapters earlier.
This distraction [for me, anyway] was either intentional and meant to put the fictional Anthony Horowitz in his place, or a sign that the real Anthony Horowitz just might have a little too much on his plate — with Alex Rider (his popular Young Adventure series) novels and TV scripts, Tin Tin screenplays, Hawthorne novels and God knows what else he's committed himself to.
In any case [and I hope there are many more cases...and a TV adaptation], I eagerly await the promised third installment of the Hawthorne mysteries but, no pressure, Mr. Horowitz. Take your time.
Eric Sandberg: My true opinion on everything is that it's splunge.