I have been eagerly anticipating this follow up to The Word is Murder (2017) for quite a while, having thoroughly enjoyed the first novel in this out of the ordinary new series. Out of the ordinary you say? Well it is not every day that an author puts himself into the plot, not just as a cameo, but as a Watson narrator for a co-protagonist, who is an ex-policeman, now Private Investigator called Daniel Hawthorne. Indeed Horowitz, the character, is not being propelled into an unfamiliar world or time period, but instead is very much kept within his normal life with Hawthorne intruding upon it. Furthermore the familiar blue print for the social misfit detective is equally not wholly adhered to, with Hawthorne becoming a far more problematic and interesting character.
However before I plunge into the review more fully for the sake of ease when I refer to Horowitz I am referring to the character and when I say the author or writer I am referring to well… It’ll be interesting to see how well I remember to stick to this system.
A difficult morning of filming for the 7th series of Foyle’s War is made even worse for Horowitz, by a modern day taxi entering the shot and of course we can guess who is inside the cab… Nonplussed by ruining the take, Daniel Hawthorne, proceeds to tell Horowitz about a new case Hawthorne has been employed by the police to advise on a.k.a. solve. The previous night Richard Pryce, a successful divorce lawyer for the wealthy, was murdered in his Hampstead set home. This is a case of death by wine bottle, though not by drinking the contents. Attention is immediately given to the last divorce proceedings Pryce had been working on, given the thematic aptness of threat he had received from the wife in the case, a feminist writer, last week. There is also the unusual clue of the number painted on the wall: 182. Hawthorne is his usual recalcitrant self, still refusing to open up, yet he is a walk in the park in comparison to their police counterparts, who seem to emulate the criminals they arrest more than they should. Other deaths past and present widen the case, yet Horowitz still cherishes the dream of solving the case before everyone else. Is he in with a chance or is it a mere pipe dream?
When it comes to partnerships such as Holmes and Watson, Poirot and Hastings and Wolfe and Goodwin, the focus and the attention is decidedly on the great sleuths themselves. Yet I found this not to be the case in this book. If anything I felt Horowitz’s wrangling and resistance towards his role as a Watson narrator to be a main strand of novel, with Horowitz still trying to come to terms with role he has in his partnership with Hawthorne. We definitely have some overt irony when for instance Horowitz writes that: ‘I like to be in control of my books. I had no wish to turn myself into a character, and a secondary one at that: the perennial sidekick.’ I equally loved the line where Hawthorne says to him that: ‘you write stuff down without even realising its significance. You’re a bit like a travel writer who doesn’t know quite where he is.’ I really liked this way of looking at a Watson narrator, even if it is not very complimentary! Yet for all this, Horowitz is a Watson narrator who is self-conscious of his failings when it comes to sleuthing and therefore finds the position as Watson all the more galling. I find this tension paramount to the text as a whole.
Like with his Watson role, Horowitz also has a love hate relationship with the sleuth he is biographing for, with emphasis much more on the dislike than the like, especially when it seems that Hawthorne is happy to cross Horowitz’s boundaries, but ensures Horowitz cannot do likewise. We do get to see a more personal/friendlier side to Hawthorne though only for a very brief glimmer. With this and other moments of vulnerability a crack of light is beginning to emerge on the character of Hawthorne and I have a few ideas as to the mystery surrounding him.
At times I think Horowitz and Hawthorne are perhaps more similar than they think, as through their respective professions, private investigator and writer, they both have the trait of assessing and judging others. Now Hawthorne often puts his foot in it by expressing this judgement in an inappropriate way, yet I found at times that Horowitz too exhibited a certain judging tendency. The big difference is, is that he voices it in a more socially acceptable way. Though I think each of these characters probably has a difference focus when it comes to their judging. For Horowitz there is a partial leaning towards women, as looking at his approach to describing and assessing the suspects there is a gendered difference. It didn’t particularly bug me but it was still a strong impression that I got. Now the suspects in general are a fairly unpleasant bunch, but I would say that the unpleasantness of the female characters is written with a greater intensity. The two most successful women professionally are the most criticised and it just so happens that those two are the ones who treat Horowitz with the most indifference, which with their lack of personal manners probably balances things up. The gendered difference is most palpable when you compare the scenes featuring the interviews Horowitz and Hawthorne have with the ex-couple from the case Pryde just concluded. Both of them begin as suspects who see themselves as superior and both of course have their fall later in the book, yet I just found that a lot more relish went into breaking the woman down, as though Horowitz needed that moment to reclaim the position of superiority and power, (as shown in his new ability to feel pity for the woman). Male characters can be unpleasant but any commentary on this unpleasantness is much less extensive or qualified by remarks suggesting a feeling of liking them in spite of the negatives.
By situating the story within his normal life the writer gets to indulge in sharing milieus or settings which he knows a lot about and has a lot invested in. A key instance of this is the behind the scenes look at the making of TV productions and boy did I not realise how much effort it takes to shoot 30 seconds of film! The writer also has a lot of fun, (which he passes on to the reader), with various mystery/thriller clichés such as chase scenes, as well as references to Sherlock Holmes. Hawthorne at the start of the book unleashes a series of deductions about Horowitz, yet I liked how this familiar event is inverted in some interesting ways such as Horowitz’s reaction being one of exasperation not amazement. There is also another scene later on the book involving The Study in Scarlet, which I loved but I’ll let you find out how great it is for yourselves.
I am seen as a blogger who spends a lot of time talking about the characters in books and I am sure this review has been a case in point. Yet I do want to change tracks and look at the plot, which does not suffer or get marginalised due to the captivating character development. The case opens up with additional deaths, but I enjoyed how Horowitz uses these deaths to bring a refreshingly clever solution to the initial murder, as the relationship between them is not entirely straight forward. Hawthorne has it right when you have to find the shape of the crime. As in the Holmes stories the reader will be ahead of Horowitz in many respects, anticipating some developments that he does not, but I don’t think many readers will be a pace with Hawthorne. The culprit is surprising, yet it did not feel like a cheat, as Hawthorne carefully outlines all the things Horowitz and the reader overlooked. I’m surprised I am not bruised for kicking myself so much! There is one clue where I did nearly shout out ‘arghhh.’ No detail is too small for this solution! All of the pieces of the solution dovetail beautifully, though this is to be expected from the writer, who has a definite strength in this area, as is his ability to craft very clever and sneaky linguistic clues. So you certainly need to keep your wits about you when reading this book!
So another enthralling instalment in the series, as I did race through this one fairly rapidly and I am interested to see where the writer takes the series next, as this is a book which not only gets you thinking, in terms of solving the puzzle set, but also has you pondering a lot about the characters themselves, as he provides his readers with two very well layered protagonists. Thankfully for those of you eager to get your hands on this book, you won’t have long to wait as it is being released on the 1st November.
On a final note I have also been enjoying the linking titles in this series and I’m hoping it’s not just me who wonders whether future book titles will go the whole hog and progress from word and sentence to say paragraph, page, chapter etc.
No, just me?
Magpie Murders (2016)