I really loved Horowitz’ last book, Magpie Murders (2016), so I was definitely excited when I was able to get a copy of his latest book, as part of being a Book Marks member. Book Marks is a survey/poll/discussion forum site hosted by Penguin Books and at various stages once you’ve attained a certain amount of points you are able to get certain prizes. In this instance it was a free book personally recommended for yourself.
But back to this story. The Word is Murder (2017), begins with Diana Cowper arranging her own funeral. You could say this was very timely of her, as six hours later she is murdered in her own home, strangled. You could also say that the first person narrator is of the Watson mould, but that would possibly suggest a rather predictable storyteller and that is very far from the truth in this case. After all it’s not every day you read a book where the author puts themselves into their own story…
In between writing projects Horowitz, (which when hitherto used refers to the fictional narrator), ends up sucked into a real life murder investigation. The police are struggling to solve Cowper’s murder, so have roped in an ex-police officer called Daniel Hawthorne to do his own investigation alongside their own. Hawthorne decides that he wants his investigation written down for posterity and calls Horowitz to do the job. As you’d expect there are plenty of suspects with a reason for murder and an old hit and run case resurfaces as well. However as all readers of Anthony Horowitz will know, there is plenty of the unexpected to dazzle and intrigue the reader. So will I say no more about the plot and leave it for you to discover…
Anthony Horowitz definitely sets up high expectations in this book and thankfully I can say he fulfils them. Metafiction is taken to a whole new level when Horowitz becomes his own narrator and I think he handles this aspect of the story well. I can only imagine that it must be a rather surreal experience to write yourself into a book and that it depends a lot on how good a judge you are of your own character. Throughout the book you do find yourself wondering how true to life the narrator is to the author. I think it is quite telling when Horowitz comments in the story the difference between writing The House of Silk, (a Holmes sequel), to writing this book. For the former novel he writes that ‘it struck me from the very start that my job was to be invisible. I tried to hide myself in Doyle’s shadow.’ Equally in Magpie Murders, you could say Anthony Horowitz hid himself behind other voices, especially when it came to the golden age styled detective novel within the story. Whilst in this latest novel his position as narrator is much more exposed and Horowitz as a character has to consider how intrusive a role it is.
Turning to the relationship between Horowitz and Daniel Hawthorne, I again think Anthony Horowitz has done a great job, particularly considering how much harder he made that job for himself. Horowitz and Hawthorne are ‘complete opposites’ and Horowitz when introducing the latter describes him as ‘extremely annoying’ and even as challenging and threatening. At times this disparity has brilliant comic effect. It is so tempting to name my favourite parts but ever conscious of giving away spoilers I will refrain from saying any more. But trust me there are definitely a number of laugh out loud moments. Additionally the massive differences between the two characters also adds to the narrating experience as they have to negotiate how the tale will be written. Horowitz has a narrative flair for drama, whilst Hawthorne is a stickler for accuracy and for including all pieces of information, whilst avoiding phrases which could be misconstrued. Above all for me I think the tension between these two writing modes made me consider my position as a reader more and the information I am presented with. Maddeningly of course on page 43 we are told that there is a big clue to the killer in Chapter 1, which of course you’ve completely missed and in my case still missed after a second read through. Furthermore, through these protagonists Anthony Horowitz also explores another crime fiction writing tension: revealing a lot about the personal lives of the detective vs. getting on with narrating how the crime is solved. Horowitz sides more with the former saying to Hawthorne that: ‘I’d have to know where you live, whether you’re married or not, what you have for breakfast, what you do on your day off. That’s why people read murder stories.’ Conversely, Hawthorne believes that ‘the word is murder. That’s what matters’ and on balance I would say that Anthony Horowitz certainly gives getting to know the detective in this story a very big sting in its tail. This is because Anthony Horowitz gives himself the complicated task of creating a detective figure who has some rather unlikeable traits. In turn this complicates things for the reader, who cannot easily categorise the detective, who the reader can enjoy for his Holmes like traits and ability to comically needle Horowitz, but who on the other hand has objectionable views. In a genre where good and bad, can be presented in a black and white manner, especially when it comes to cops and villains, Anthony Horwitz presents a much murkier picture. Moreover, when discussing such issues, Anthony Horowitz, doesn’t proffer overly simplistic responses, instead showing that Hawthorne is someone to be investigated rather than be simply written off.
I don’t think readers will be overly shocked that I really enjoyed this book. Being able to see behind the scenes of writing a book and the understated British humour were both brilliant aspects of the novel. The competitive and tense relationship between Horowitz and Hawthorne is equally played out very well and avoids many predictable narrative ruts and the challenge Anthony Horowitz presents to reader loyalty and character attachment is engaging. The dramatic finale to the case has you on the edge of your seat and the ending has a delightfully entertaining twist. On the whole the mystery is well clued, though I definitely think you have to bring you’re A game to solve it.
The Puzzle Doctor has also reviewed this book here.