What if you like a book, but for the wrong reasons? That’s my dilemma after reading The Word is Murder, the new crime thriller from Anthony Horowitz. This is apparently the first in a series of eight or nine novels in which Horowitz plays the role of fourth-wall-breaking sidekick to bad-boy ex-cop Daniel Hawthorne.
The book is written in the first person, and that person is called Anthony Horowitz, but I am not sure whether the character is actually Horowitz, or Horowitz playing a part, rather like Coogan and Brydon in The Trip. What I can tell you is that Horowitz the writer appears to be having a great time, making little asides to the reader that both glamorise and send up what it is like to be a famous, successful author. He has lunches with his aggressive agent! He knows how to play the crowd at Hay! More exquisitely, he scans the bookshelves of each house he goes into, to see if he’s featured. He also gets to provide asides on topics like online intolerance which are close to his heart.
It helps that the murder mystery involves showbiz types, and Horowitz the character is able to move in that world. There’s a farcical meeting with Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson. There’s a scene at a funeral that is a comic set piece as well as being a crucial moment in the plot. These and other scenes are drawn beautifully. But you do wonder at times whether some of the characters – for example, the narcissistic thesp Damian Cowper – are drawn for the lolz rather than as credible beings.
Daniel Hawthorne is given a bunch of Sherlock Holmes devices: he deduces that Horowitz has been to his seaside second home because of sand on his shoes; he generally makes outrageous demands on Horowitz’s time; he doesn’t share his thinking, leaving Horowitz to flounder around like an idiot, but an idiot who makes asides about what it’s like to develop and write a successful TV series.
And I think this is where the problem lies. Horowitz lifts the veil too much for us to know when and whether he is being serious. He tells us that Hawthorne is not a great main protagonist
The world has had quite enough of white, middle-aged, grumpy detectives
and he gives him a set of negative characteristics. Worse, having provided this unsympathetic lead, he describes the process through which Christopher Foyle was developed, both originally, on the page and when working with Michael Kitchen:
Only when [Kitchen was cast] did the real work begin. There was always a tension between the two of us. For example, Michael insisted almost from the start that Foyle would never ask questions, which made life difficult for me and seemed…unusual for a detective…We found other…ways to get to the information that the plot demanded…In this way, year after year, the character developed.
Obviously Hawthorne will develop as a character as the series progresses (as will Horowitz’s character) but the effect is to remind the reader of better work elsewhere. Foyle fans will be both excited and disappointed by this novel.
And there’s the paradox of The Word is Murder. The mystery itself is improbable but plausible, as Jonathan Creek might say (indeed, it reminded me of a few of Creek’s puzzles): it’s fine, by which I mean both well put together and just OK. You aren’t going to sit up late at night pondering it, and it isn’t going to make you think in a broader sense. The far more interesting aspect of the book and what makes it worth reading (for it is definitely that) is how Horowitz the writer, Horowitz the narrator and Horowitz the character work together as a kind of writerly and incredibly meta trinity. Whether that’s enough of a foundation for an entire series remains to be seen.
Thanks to Century for the review copy.