The Sentence is Death is the second in Anthony Horowitz’s mysteries starring himself and detective Daniel Hawthorne. I liked its predecessor, The Word is Murder, but Sentence sees the series really hit its stride.
We start strongly, on a Foyle’s War location shoot. I think this is clever, as it sets Horowitz’s persona up in an extremely accessible way. All too often a crime novel has a slow, scene-setting start. This one doesn’t do anything other than to set up our relationship with the story-teller. By the time Hawthorne arrives, with a mystery to solve, we are happily settled down with the narrator. Horowitz will later, in one of myriad asides to the reader, point out that you ‘cannot have a central character who is…by his very nature, unpleasant.’ Horowitz is supposedly referring to Hawthorne, who is prone to homophobic remarks, but he knows full well that as the narrator he’s the central character. He breaks the fourth wall all the time, to give us the inside insight into his writing process, to muse about the nature of crime fiction, or just to insult a certain kind of writer. He is happy to be playful, with the sort of phrases (my favourite: referring to Ravilious and Gill as ’a collection of Erics’) that a third person narrative just can’t get away with. And he is confident enough to include a rather wonderful running joke involving Michael Kitchen, which is genuinely funny, affectionate enough to delight the Foyle fandom and straightforward enough for the general reader. The result is a form of story-telling which is amusing, engaging and provides a fine frame on which to hang the tale. Yes, we know that Horowitz will fail when he sets off to solve the crime himself. It doesn’t matter in the least.
I thought the mystery was excellent, too. The main plot involves a divorce lawyer and the usual cast of people any of whom could have dunit. But the issue is blown open by a death at King’s Cross station that takes Horowitz and Hawthorne up to Yorkshire to investigate an old caving tragedy. The use of a subplot that involves the menace of the elements contrasts very nicely with tales of the upper middle class folk of Highgate. And the psychological scarring caused by what happens in the Long Way Hole can be compared against the blunt but effective bullying by Met dimwits Grunshaw and Mills (I loved that Grunshaw references Horowitz’s writing for young people and not, say, his work on Foyle or Midsomer Murders), and the low-level power struggle that takes place between Horowitz and Hawthorne; and, indeed, the general sense of injustice (think of Lenny Pinkerman and the admittedly hilarious set-to at Daunt’s).
What next? We’ve had ‘Word’ and ‘Sentence’ so in what I hope will be called The Paragraph is Fatality we can expect some more revelations about Hawthorne and his methods, perhaps involving Pinkerman and Kenneth Brannigan. Perhaps Horowitz will avoid being stabbed next time. But in the meantime I recommend this quirky and enjoyable take on the detective novel.
Thanks to Century for the review copy.