Those of us who love a mystery that actually provides clues, hints, indications, and pointers towards a solution we might have had a chance of anticipating were we canny enough have found much to enjoy in the recent career of Anthony Horowitz. Magpie Murders (2016) contains a piece of audacious clewing up there with the best the Golden Age had to offer, and its sequel Moonflower Murders (2020) is rich in such matters. And the Daniel Hawthorne novels, in which a fictionalised version of Horowitz plays Watson to Hawthorne’s vaguely mysterious Holmes, have been less traditional, but no less clever in how they’ve misdirected.
A Line to Kill (2021) — I can’t shake the feeling that there’s a “For” missing from the end of that title — is the third Hawthorne book, and easily the widest yet that Horowitz has cast his net over the traditional mystery, but it’s also the one that falls down the most in the matter of clues. They’re definitely present, and possibly in larger numbers than ever before, but this time around they lack the subtle artistry Horowitz has shown elsewhere. If, taking Father Brown’s example, the best place to hide a dead body in on a battlefield, I’d suggest that this novel comes at the problem the other way around: piling up (figurative) dead bodies and trying to convince you that a battle has taken place. Which is to say that, due to the various clandestine activities going on, all the clues for all the cases stand out a mile, and they seemed to this reader to mostly divide up very clearly into the various strands Horowitz wants to establish. The result is something over which a large amount of care has been taken, and in which very few of the surprises actually surprise.
Invited to the island of Alderney for a small literary festival, Horowitz and Hawthorne find the focus of the event changing when one of the organisers is murdered and, since no-one has left the island, the killer is likely to still be in their midst. It’s a superbly compact idea, exactly the sort of thing you’d find in the Golden Age, and Horowitz has the good sense not to play it too straight too early: witness his own peevishness when looking over the list of authors attending (“Not quite the magnificent seven, I couldn’t help thinking.”) or the number of times people included the book express the hope that they’re not going to be included in the book. You get the sense that Horowitz is having the most fun when he’s playing with these meta elements, not least his own fictionalised self, and it comes across superbly.
“[I]t would be quite nice to know what’s in your head and whether you’ve solved the mystery yet.”
“Is this for the book?”
“Don’t worry. If there is a book, I’ll leave the solution until the last chapter.”
Some reflections upon the expectations and nature of fiction also creep in once again — such as how unsatisfying it would be to discover at the end of everything that an especially unsavoury character was responsible for the murders, since the readers would likely feel very little conflict with someone so unpleasant being arrested (“If you read Agatha Christie, you may have noticed that every single one of her killers manages to elicit a modicum of sympathy.”). In all three books, Horowitz has judged this sort of winking at the audience very well — many other pastiches could learn a lot from studying this aspect of his writing — and the additional spotlight on the importance of character empathy is a timely one.
In fact, it’s in the characters and their realisation that this novel commends itself over its predecessors: the celebrity chef Marc Bellamy’s forced bonhomie coming across “as if he was always searching for the next joke just around the corner but was afraid he would never quite reach it”, the blind medium Elizabeth Lovell calling out to spirits in English leaving Horowitz wondering if “everyone [spoke] the same language when they died, trapped in some sort of eternal Google Translate”, and even Hawthorne himself unbending to become positively garrulous when placed on the stage to talk about the at-the-time-unpublished first novel in this series The Word is Murder (2017):
For the next twenty minutes, we took questions, although almost all of them were directed at Hawthorne and had very little to do with the books. He went through several of the cases he had investigated, including the brothel in Causton Street that he had mentioned at Random House and, more annoyingly, the murder of Diana Cowper, which I had just described. Unlike me, though, he didn’t stop at the scene of the crime. I would have to remind him, before we ever did another talk, not to mention, quite so casually, who had done it.
In true classic mystery style, most of the people who have come to Alderney have an ulterior motive for being there, and it’s this element of the plotting that jeopardises the good base laid before the investigation begins. Readers’ reactions are of course highly individual, but to me the various strands never seemed to intersect in a way that made most of the clues obscure (rot13 for mild spoilers: fznyy bowrpgf xrrc tbvat zvffvat, naq bar bs gur fhfcrpgf unf gur avpxanzr “grn yrns”…uzzzz). When the killer drops the key revelations that catch them out come the end, it just seemed to come out of nowhere and so stuck out miles for me. And the second death felt…well, redundant and not especially well-explained come the end (I’m thankful that Horowitz didn’t do some goofy lampshading here, though). I’ll admit that I missed the motive due to clever phrasing, and one element explained in the final chapter passed me by completely — so it’s not like I solved everything — but I’d hoped for something so deliberately traditional to do more than simply press four distinct schemes together and call it a plot, so that the places where they meet seem so damn obvious.
A Line to Kill is a long, long way from being a bad book — Horowitz’s prose is spectacularly easy to read, and he captures some small moments with note perfect grace (“Without realising it, I’d had too much to drink. I wasn’t drunk, but I could feel the self-disgust that alcohol always inspires when it doesn’t make you happy.”) — and it’s a positive delight in the climate of what feels like modern thrillers ossifying into amnesiacs and chases in various combinations…but it seems to lack the brilliant ideas or reversals that his other mysteries have used to distinguish themselves. If anything, this leans more heavily into the sorts of setups that you’d expect Horowitz to establish precisely so that he can avoid the obvious outcome (this is true of one of the characters in particular), and every time there could be a more interesting explanation it gets passed up for the easier path.
However, it will sell in droves and deserves to because of the great work Horowitz continues to do in the genre. I closed this wishing that the next one — surely a later entry in this series is going to be called The Bodies in the Library — was available to pick up immediately, because we’re always quick to forgive when someone who’s done brilliant work elsewhere has a slight stumble. If nothing esle, there’s a real sense of something dark in Hawthorne’s past that might not be the damp squib we would typically expect when such things are hinted at for protagonists of long-running series, and I’m intrigued to see where the growing unease between detective and chronicler leads. Of course, this sort of long game isn’t in the DNA of the traditional mystery Horowitz is aping, but these books are clearly written with a genuine appreciation of the genre that spawned them, and there’s really not enough of this sort of thing around these days. I sincerely hope it’s not another three year wait before the plot thickens further (unless Horowitz intends to publish more Sherlock Holmes in that time, of course…).
The Horowitz & Hawthorne mysteries: