#836: A Line to Kill (2021) by Anthony Horowitz

A Line to Kill

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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:

1. The Word is Murder (2017)
2. The Sentence is Death (2018)
3. A Line to Kill (2021)

12 thoughts on “#836: A Line to Kill (2021) by Anthony Horowitz

  1. This is one of those where I didn’t particularly like a book….but I still like it because I want more of what it is doing: actual mysteries with clues and a good writing style. I prefer the ‘Murders’ books to the Hawthorne, mainly because I solve these faster (the first one has the distinction of being the only mystery novel I’ve figured out on the first page) and that in three books Horowitz (the narrator) seems to have such an ambivalent dislike to him, that it can’t help but transfer to you.

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    • I think we’re in agreement about this one, and I’m perfectly happy to allow Horowitz an occasional slip in the long-term game because he’s going to sell bunches of them and so hopefully get people realising what a genuinely clued mystery is. The next one will, I have no doubt, be an improvement.

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  2. I also just finished this earlier this week and my thoughts mirror yours though I think you came down on it a little harder than I do. It is probably, I think, the weakest of the three Hawthorne books, but still not a bad read by a long shot. It was breezy and fun, though there were fewer twists and reversals as you mentioned and when the killer was revealed, I was hoping for something more (though I should admit that Horowitz fooled me…the solution he tosses away in the final chapter was actually the direction that my own deductions had lead me). While reading this, I thought more than once about how this story seemed ripe for television; without being able to put my finger on it, this book was less “literary” than its predecessors.

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    • That final chapter “here’s who I thought it was” is such an obvious red herring because it doesn’t fit into any of the other existing structures around which the clues are based…I can see what he was trying to do, but the various strands should have overlapped more for it to be believable or credible as possibility.

      And, yes, the televisual nature of this is pretty clear: the landscape, the architecture, the visceral presentation of the two crime scenes…perfect for a Sunday evening!

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  3. Thanks for the review, JJ, and perhaps I should have waited for your review before purchasing the book on my Kindle… 😅 I confess I quite enjoyed it, thought I wasn’t sure if the solution was as well-clued as the previous solutions in the series. In terms of how well-hidden the culprit was, let’s just say I thought there were both pedestrian and clever aspects to how Horowitz handled the trope.

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    • Hey, always remember that any review is only the author’s opinion — much better that you read it yourself and find what you do and/or don’t like. And, yes, that particular trope is handled both badly and very, very well…certainly I didn’t see it coming — and while the imformation that points to it is by no means conclusive, it’s still there for you to at least consider and I’m guessing most readers won’t.

      Now we just have to wait for the next one, which I’m already convinced will be more successful.

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      • I do like canvassing for opinions before making a purchase, but in this case, given I already owe the previous two entries in the series on my Kindle, I suspect I’d have gone ahead anyway. 😅 But I do like reading your reviews, as I think our tastes are quite aligned.

        I see your point though, and I agree that this probably isn’t the strongest entry in Horowitz’s mystery-writing oeuvre. I suspect I enjoyed it slightly more than you did—but if the other two entries in the Hawthorn/Anthony series were 4 stars, I concur that this current title is a notch below.

        On the issue of the trope of hiding the culprit—I think the coded discussion is confusing me, so let me put a spoiler alert.

        SPOILER ALERT

        I think the two actual culprits are quite guessable, as they were prominent on the list of suspects; figuring out the how, the why, and their partnership seemed to me to be trickier. But I thought it was quite cheeky as to how Horowitz (the author) dangled a “least possible suspect”, and then have Anthony (the character) confess he thought it was that character. The moment that character appeared, I also wondered if he or she would turn out to be the “well-hidden” culprit—I suspect if John Dickson Carr wrote the novel, he’d have made that character the culprit!

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        • See, this is one of the elements of this that seemed far less successful to me…

          SPOILERS FOLLOW

          Horowitz tells us at the end that he thought Person X was likely the killer, effectively directing you to his having included a least likely suspect he wanted you the reader to plump for, but there’s nothing that character does except sit in a taxi and say “Oh, I was on the site of the crime when it happened”. We don’t know enough about them for their viability as a suspect to be worth considering.

          They’re not a part of the action or events elsewhere — you could literally cut them out of the book and it would make no difference to anyone. This is why it seems to me that this is more a “series of events happening in the same place” book than an actual complex-ish puzzle plot: the overlaps between the various strands are so basic, and because they don’t entangle they sit at very clear, distinct strata…and only one of them intersects only with the murder. And also has a massive info-dump where they drop all sorts of information that only exists to recall later and show they’re the killer.

          The potential is here, and Horowitz does really good work with the various clues — better than any of his contemporaries, several country miles ahead — so I’m encouraged in the overall scheme of things. But as a mystery novel in its own right, this disappointed me

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          • SPOILER ALERT

            Thanks JJ for the detailed reply—I see where you’re coming from, and I think I felt that way about Carr’s Till Death Do Us Part. I found the hiding of the culprit ingenious, but the character appeared like, two times, and didn’t seem to say anything too consequential… 😅

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  4. Pingback: A Line to Kill (2021) by Anthony Horowitz – crossexaminingcrime

  5. Looks like we differ on this one, as I didn’t have much of a clue who did it, and I did spend a lot of time figuring how to fit the red herring suspect into the frame for the killer. I loved that bit, that Horowitz tricked me into looking that way.

    I actually found this the most enjoyable of the Hawthorne titles…

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    • Thankfully these differences keep us in a hobby — where would the fun be in always agreeing? I mean, sure, some of us would save a lot of money if we knew our tastes aligned exactly, since we’d be able to avoid buying books that we knew wouldn’t prove enjoyable…but that would also be sort of terrifying, right?

      For me, The Sentence is Death is still the highlight of these three. But it is only a three book series at present. Let’s discuss favourites when there are eight of them, it’ll be more meaningful.

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