#314: The Word is Murder (2017) by Anthony Horowitz

cover100π posts was always going to be a special one for me, and it’s the perfect opportunity to dive into the latest from Anthony Horowitz, a man who in recent years has — thanks to The House of Silk (2011), Moriarty (2014), and Magpie Murders (2016) — become something of a favourite among fans of detective fiction.  He spoke at a signing I attended recently about the joy of  being able to discover his own voice as a writer (he also wrote an official James Bond novel, with another one imminent), and it’s unsurprising to find him — now that he can have things completely his own way — involved once again in the exploration of structure shown not just in Magpie Murders but also his oft-neglected The Killing Joke (2004).

Is this meta-fiction?  If not, it’s pretty damn close: firstly is the insertion of Horowitz himself — not to mention his family, professional associates, and a couple of famous faces — into his murder mystery plot, that of a woman killed six hours after planning her own funeral.  To expedite this, we have the real/fictional crossover character ex-DI Daniel Hawthorne, once of the Metropolitan Police and now something of a freelance consultant, who contacts Horowitz to write a book about this investigation of the crime.  There are shades here of Leo Bruce’s Sergeant Beef novels, with Horowitz cast as the uncertain, unimpressed, and at times infuriated Lionel Townsend and Hawthorne as the boorish, homophobic, truculent investigator who — while something of a pillock on the surface — is also something of a genius underneath.

However, Horowitz’s deconstruction goes deeper than simply an author-insert character who happens to actually be the, y’know, actual author.  There’s a fearlessly clever examination of the line between the fiction this really is and the true crime it purports to be: at one point Hawthorne critiques something Horowitz has already passed off as fact in the narrative, and Horowitz admits that many of the details are actually inaccurate and simply there to provide atmosphere.  So your unreliable narrator corrects his own unreliability within a conversation with a fictional second character to better present the ‘correct’ version of a fictional situation…yeah, this is my kind of book.  The self-referencing settles down as the plot begins to gear up, but when on the page it’s intelligent rather than simply smart-mouthed.

The book must, however, also function as a murder mystery before it gets too clever-clever, and the mystery itself is played out very well indeed.  A suitable set of suspects all have enough in the closets to keep from view, and the introduction of each new player adds a new dimension to the plot without ever over-stuffing it: at heart, when you remove the references to Horowitz’s other books or the TV series he’s involved in, this is simply a beautifully-built piece of detection.  And the meta aspect enhances the main plot, too, with out author-as-character suggesting that by a particular point in the plot he would have introduced the murderer as a character…but because this is real life he can’t be certain if that’s happened yet, or the moment Hawthorne assures him that something he’s written (and we’ve read) contains a key clue to identify the killer by.  This is literary gamesmanship writ large, and loads of fun to watch unfold.

I cottoned on to a key clue early doors that plays out at the midpoint, and picked up a piece of dialogue which provides the main motivation behind everything (though I interpreted it as an arrow pointing in the opposite direction), but there’s so much going on here that even if you pick up four or five things you’re still going to have more than a few decent surprises.  It suffers a little in the closing stages from our killer turning out to be mad — maaaaaad, I tell you! — with hefty monologuing and a liberal dose of deus ex machina, but then there’s also a lovely piece of deconstruction after this which sort of undercuts all the tropes that you’ve just been served.  It doesn’t quite excuse said tropes, but it’s a keenly wry moment nonetheless.

There are implications that a mystery lies at the heart of Hawthorne himself, and the book jacket promises — and Horowtiz has spoken about — more Hawthorne books to come.  I’m intrigued by Hawthorne, it must be said.  He has a line in Sherlock-style deductions based on canny observations that are always fun to see played out, but he breaks the archetype by being a deliberately unlikable character in many ways; I’m curious to see where Horowitz takes his ex-policeman for whom “politeness was a surgical mask, something he slipped on before he took out his scalpel”.  And this means that there’s a living detective fiction author writing in English whose books I’m excited about!!  Man, all he needs to do now is write an impossible crime and my life is complete…

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Quick question that has nothing to do with the quality of the book itself — what’s with the phone box motif on the cover?  I remember there are phone boxes outside the cemetery before the funeral herein, but apart from that I remember no mention of or reference to them in the plot…am I missing something?

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See also:

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime: Horowitz gives himself the complicated task of creating a detective figure who has some rather unlikable 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.

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For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to last week’s The Boat Race Murder because, er, both have “Murder” in the title…?  I can think of no other meaningful similarity they share…

23 thoughts on “#314: The Word is Murder (2017) by Anthony Horowitz

  1. I am very partial to a bit of the old postmodern so do like the sound of this though have hitherto stayed away from his fiction as I have generally found his TV work rather bland and formulaic (including FOYLE’ S WAR, sorry about that). But you have convinced me here, ta!

    • I would have been very sceptical about anything postmodern in detective fiction prior to Horowitz, but then my reading feels like it’s on some sort of learning curve: only because of Carr did I start reading Holmes pastiches, and because of that I read Horowitz’s House of Silk, and because of that I’ve found myself enjoying his postmodern takes on GAD…who knows where it will end…?!

  2. This one has been grazing in the waist-deep savannah that is my TBR pile for a couple of months now. It sounds marvelous and right up my alley! I, too, do a happy jig for the existence of a living author from whom I can look forward to seeing more. And here go my feet a’tapping anew for the sheer amount of good books stacked up in my home, waiting to be read. If it wasn’t for the fact that my job gives me no time to read them, I’d be going into a St. Vitus Dance of joy!

    And Foyle’s War is too good, Mr. Sergio!!!! So there!

  3. Still haven’t read any of Horowitz’ novels. Not even his juvenile series about Alex Rider though I was tempted to buy the lot because I used to find them all the time at our hospital’s thrift shop. He writes fairly long books (Magpie Murders is a doorstop tome of nearly 500 pages!) and I need to take a break from mega-mysteries for a while. I’m just finishing a 400+ page novel right now from 2014 and then I’m nestling back into the vintage world of tidily written, compact mysteries of 225 pages or less. It will be a relief! I’ll be able to polish off four or five in two weeks, instead of one book over the same duration. Horowitz is always on my radar, however, and this one sounds like a lot of fun. Thanks for the usual insightful and detailed analysis.

    P.S. Does that commenter up above really think you meant Caleb Carr instead of John Dickson Carr? Not a regular visitor, that’s for sure.

      • Haha, I get equally excited when I see something on Weighing a Pig that I think I maybe have once may possibly have heard of. Thanks for crossing the boundary fence, come back any time!

    • The Alex Rider books are a lot of fun, but I would expect his detection to be more your tempo (based, that is, purely on your blogging — most people wouldn’t expect me to be a nascent SF nerd based on what I write about here, and they’d be off in that assumption). The couple of Holmes books Horowitz wrote are pretty sleek and focussed, and might be a good way to investigate his work wihtout straying too far into unfamiliar territory…

      As for the Carr/Carr mistake — ha, it’s more my fault for forgetting that Caleb Carr did a Holmes novel (in fairness to me, it is not a good book and so difficult to want to recall). A timely reminder that not everything I write is as clear as I think it is!

  4. Had mixed feelings about The House of Silk but Magpie Murders is on the TBR pile and looking forward to it. Was a big Groosham Grange fan when small so have a lot of goodwill towards Horowitz. This one sounds like a love it or throw-it-across-the room-in-meta-induced-exasperation type of structure.

    • Oh, I don’t want to give the impression that it’s idiotically OTT in its meta; quite the opposite — take the meta out and it would work less well, which is exactly the right way to use meta if you ask me (no-one ever asks).

      It’s a different animal to Magpie Murders, but plays the game with the same joie de vivre and pure love of the puzzle plot. If you like that, you’ll definitely go for this — will be interested to hear your thoughts when MM makes it to Reading status.

  5. I’ve not much to say about Anthony Horowitz. Never read any of his mystery novels, but he did write one of the best Midsomer Murders episodes from the early period (Death’s Shadow). And believe there was a quasi-impossible crime in the first season of Foyle’s War (about a shooting in a pitch-black room). So that might help you complete your life.

    Oh, the early ones by Adair are not any better than the later one. It’s just pretentious dribble and very poor detective stories at that. What more, Evadne Mount is one of the few characters who kept hoping would stumble into the business end of an ice-pick. If you want to read a post-modernist detective novel that doesn’t give you blood lust, I can recommend R.H.W. Dillard’s The Book of Changes. The book also has several references that will no doubt fly over the head of casual readers, unfamiliar with the mystery genre, but will make fanboys immediately perk up.

  6. Thanks for the (long-awaited) review – I read the novel almost as soon as it appeared on my Kindle. Of the three novels I’ve read, I liked ‘House of Silk’ least, and I enjoyed the Atticus Pund novel within ‘Magpie Murders’ best. Because of my English Literature background, I enjoyed ‘Word is Murder’, and I especially liked the central twist – though when I tried the clue out on something I possess (sorry, trying to avoid spoilers), it didn’t quite work. From my recollection, I think I liked the meta-fictive and self-referential moments least.

    • I’m struggling to think of something you own that a twist here could be tried out on. A coffin? An ice cream shop? The mind boggles! Anyway, sorry to hear you didn’t get on with the aspects of this I enjoyed so much. Try Moriarty, a book I recommend to someone at least once a week – or, if you’re a Fleming fan, Horowitz’s Bond novel is also a superb pastiche.

      I’m enjoying more his writing as himself, because I think he had a great mind for this type of story. But I think he writes these continuations so well because of the insight his hugely vast experience has given him. And I’m pretty desperate for him to write another Sherlock Holmes novel, I really am…

  7. Pingback: Review: Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz – Composed Almost Entirely of Books

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