Having gotten so successfully into the skin of Dr. John H. Watson for his Sherlock Holmes tale The House of Silk (2011), Anthony Horowitz has now found a Watson whose skin fits even better: himself. And if Horowitz is to be Watson, he needs a Holmes — a role obligingly filled by the brilliantly perceptive ex-D.I. Daniel Hawthorne, a man as private as he is borderline-unlikable, who is parachuted into cases which run the risk of sticking around for a while and making the Metropolitan Police Force’s statistics look bad. And with Horowitz as his chronicler, it’s to be hoped that any cases they meet will require at least 80,000 words to solve…
The whole thing, of course, is a gigantic game — Horowitz bemoaning on the page that he hasn’t the insight to unpick the skein they’re faced with, when Horowitz sitting at the computer knows exactly what’s going to happen — but, since detective fiction is arguably the nidus of such game-playing, it’s a game whose circles within circles are simply part of the fun. “Personally, I don’t like murder when it comes with all these fancy bells and whistles attached,” a police officer states at an early stage, “I leave that sort of thing to…” well, to fiction writers like Anthony Horowitz. “There are only so many scenes you can have with your characters talking to each other in a room,” Horowitz narrates later on. “Eventually you have to break into some piece of action,” and a chase duly follows (he apologies for its tameness, and proceeds to upend every chase cliché in the book — well, other books).
It must also work as a legitimate piece of detective fiction, too, and, having set out his stall so well in The Word is Murder (2017), it has to be said that Horowitz really excels himself at times here: an early series of deductions from Hawthorne to explain away observations about our narrator’s difficulties at work couldn’t be more Holmesian if it tried, but there are also some brilliant pieces of clue-dropping that are resolved magnificently — sniffing at the open window of the car outside the murder victim’s house early on and then following up with a question of seemingly no relevance might just be my new favourite “the butler squints at the calendar” for how something is staring you in the face but you miss it until the detective spells it out. Sure, there’s a game being played with the narrative structure, but that’s in no way used and an excuse to skimp on the details of the plotting.
And of details, there are quite a few. We begin with the murder of a lawyer in his fashionable North London home — a teetotaler beaten on the head with a bottle of wine which is then used to slit his throat — and from here the net widens as it tightens, taking in a distinctive group comprising ex-uni friends, a divorced couple, an author of sword and sorcery Fantasy epics, and enriched by note-perfect observations like a neighbour wearing “the sort of cardigan that might have been knitted with rolling pins” and the book group Hawthorne reluctantly drags his charge along to so that they can discuss, in the middle of this updated Holmes dynamic, Holmes’ debut in A Study in Scarlet (1886). And yet even as the cast and possibilities grow, this never feels like it’s getting too big, or too cumbersome, or as if there’s anything in here that hasn’t been weighted and set as precisely as is needed — sure, the Kevin Chakraborty angle comes and goes a bit quickly, but I have a feeling we haven’t seen the last of him.
If there’s one flaw, it’s that Horowitz is having so much fun in his toybox world that at times he almost forgets the crossover into actual, tangible reality. There’s a sniff of proselytising in his assertion that it’s “impossible to use a mobile phone [in London] without the risk of it being snatched by thieves on motorbikes”, and when two experienced Metropolitan police officers seem taken aback at the rudeness of a suspect in Richard Pryce’s murder — “they weren’t used to being spoken to in this way”…really? London police officers are only ever treated with deference and respect? Man, I live in the wrong part of London, then…!
But, hey, these are trifles, the sort of nit-picking I get to indulge in because the overwhelming mass of what’s here is such a smart updating of the conceits on which it’s building. Chapter 21, in particular, is a wonderful, near-faultless example of the…er…thing it does, and I have no complaints about how skilfully the the killer is obscured or the sufficiency of clues and red herrings you encounter along the way. And Daniel Hawthorne himself is emerging as a problem as intriguing as anything he and Horowitz untangle, with a drip-feed of secrets and lies here that bode well for what’s to come (though, I’ll be honest, the classic era detection nerd in me quite likes the idea that we never get to the bottom of Hawthorne — can’t your detective just be a bit totemic and mysterious? We don’t need to see the warts on everyone, do we?). A further seven or eight of these is an absolutely delightful prospect.
A quick aside if you’ve read this (no spoilers, worry not): the working title was Another Word for Murder, and I wonder if it was used in the text in the same way “the sentence is death” is here. It would, shall we say, fit before this title, and I wonder if that was the original plan — for “another word for murder” to be in the, er, the middle of the…thing — before Horowitz found a title he liked better. Just a thought.
For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to The Pit-Prop Syndicate from last week because…I dunno, they’re very dissimilar to be honest. Indeed, the only feature they share is something of a spoiler for both. I shall therefore demur here and you’ll just have to trust me.