100π 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…
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?
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.