Reading Anthony Horowitz’s novels, it’s easy to understand why he’s so damn prolific in the world of mystery writing (he’s written more novels and television series than I care to count). His work pays homage to the great English mystery writers, such as Christie and Conan Doyle, without becoming derivative or trite. He manages to honor the classic style that came before him, somehow making it feel entirely his own and completely original.
Maybe it would be best if I told you about the book first, so you know what the heck I’m talking about.
The novel opens with Diana Cowper visiting “Cornwallis and Sons” funeral parlor where she calmly and efficiently arranges her own service and burial. A mere six hours later, she is found strangled to death in her home. Police call in former detective, Daniel Hawthorne, to consult on the case; and Hawthorne calls in writer, Anthony Horowitz, to follow him and write a novel about it. Yes, you read that correctly – the author of this book is also a character in the story.
Sounds a bit convoluted? I assure you, it’s done brilliantly.
Hawthorne thoroughly embodies the stereotypical Sherlockian character – genius deductive reasoning, sometimes off-putting personality:
“And there it was again, the bleakness in his eyes that I knew so well and which somehow told me that he saw the world in a completely different way from me and that we would never actually be close”.
Hawthorne is abrasive and uncompromising. His dedication to his work is single-minded, and he shares little about his personal life. Though he is intensely perceptive and intelligent, he is deeply flawed. Horowitz has difficulty connecting with Hawthorne, and finds him rather unlikable. In fact, Horowitz writes:
“If I had sat down to write an original murder mystery story, I wouldn’t have chosen anyone like Hawthorne as its main protagonist. I think the world has had quite enough of white, middle-aged, grumpy detectives and I’d have tried to think up something more unusual”.
Herein lies the beauty of Horowitz’s writing; a winning playfulness and dry wit that refresh the genre and make it feel original and contemporary. Horowitz-the-character would never have chosen to write about Hawthorne, yet Horowitz-the-author has done just that. By fictionalizing himself, Horowitz creates a fascinating relationship between author, story, and reader.
Continually, Horowitz-the-character reminds readers that he cannot control the story:
“These are my words but they were his actions and the truth is that, to begin with, the two didn’t quite fit.”
At one point, Hawthorne cautions against embellishing details of the case for the sake of the story, as it may introduce bias and misdirection. Though Horowitz promises to stick to the facts of the case without “potentially misleading descriptions”, readers are still left to wonder whether plot details occurred as described by Horowitz-the-character, or were obscured by Horowitz-the-author playing a character in his own book. As such, there exists this gratifying tension between semi-autobiographical writing and pure fiction, between classic literary themes and contemporary literary device.
Beyond all this narrative tinkering, a tried-and-true mystery prevails. This has all the inner workings of a classic whodunnit. Yes, I figured out one aspect of the central mystery before it was revealed, but I was far from figuring out all of it. Supremely clever Horowitz even writes into the novel that the key to solving the entire crime is in the opening pages of the book, which describe Diana Cowper’s final hours. Flipping back through the first pages, I couldn’t find the clue. I had to wait for the big reveal at the end of the novel.
It takes confidence and admirable cunning to tease the reader and play with the genre in this way, whilst maintaining the integrity and intrigue of the core mystery. Horowitz does it with masterful ease. I thoroughly appreciated this fresh take on the classic Sherlock and Watson story. I can’t wait to get my hands on the sequel, The Sentence is Death.