Just after 11 a.m. on a bright spring morning, wealthy widow Diana Cowper waltzes into the London funeral home of Cornwallis and Sons to plan her own funeral service. Six hours later, she’s found strangled to death in her terraced Chelsea home.
Who arranges their final bow and then gets killed the same day? Baffled, the police turn to Daniel Hawthorne, a disgraced yet brilliant investigator whose uncanny detective skills are matched only by his mysterious past.
It’s tempting to wade into these first few pages of The Word Is Murder by Anthony Horowitz, author of last year’s bestselling Magpie Murders and a BAFTA-winning screenwriter (“Foyle’s War,” “Midsomer Murders”), thinking that you’re about to enjoy a loving homage to the classic British mysteries of Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle. Then comes Horowitz’s inventive twist: The inscrutable Hawthorne enlists an author whose name happens to be Anthony Horowitz to join him as he probes the case and then to write a book about it, splitting the profits. And voila: This Holmes has his Watson, this Hastings his Poirot.
This literary technique, known as self-insertion, would prove problematic for most novelists. But for Horowitz, stepping into his own tale as first-person narrator allows him to introduce both an unorthodox reader relationship and an additional storyline—and a fun one at that.
“When my publishers asked me to do a series of murder mysteries, my first thought was, how do I do something that hasn’t been done before?” Horowitz says by phone from London. “I began to consider: Could I change the entire format, not only as another way to explore it but to enhance it? So I suddenly had this idea that if I became the narrator, everything changes. Instead of being on the mountain, seeing everything and knowing everything, I’m now in the valley, seeing nothing and knowing nothing. That suddenly struck me as fun—the author never knowing the ending of his own book.”
Once he found his (own) voice, The Word Is Murder took on the high-velocity twists and turns one would expect from a writer who has been wholly consumed with the conventions of classic murder mysteries since childhood. (As an upper-crust kid, Horowitz battled prep school bullies by reading golden age mysteries aloud.) Looking for suspects with possible motives, our oddly matched detectives visit the English seaside town of Dean, where 10 years prior, Cowper had struck two twin boys with her car, killing one and seriously disabling the other. She was charged but released without penalty, which leads Hawthorne and Horowitz down a trail of suspects, including the boys’ parents. Meanwhile, Cowper’s grown son, Damian, an actor whose rising star prompted a move to Hollywood, provides another lead that bears exploring. As does Raymond Clunes, a theater producer whose recent flop cost Cowper her investment in his theater troupe.
Central throughout is Hawthorne, an enigmatic hero who is also a blunt, brutal hothead. The self-insertion twist allows readers to enjoy Hawthorne and Horowitz as they bicker and brainstorm, but it also keeps this classic tale grounded in the 21st century, thanks to Horowitz’s brief asides on social media, Tintin screen production meetings with Stephen Spielberg and occasional conversations with his wife, Jill Green, who is also the producer of “Foyle’s War” and the upcoming TV adaptation of Magpie Murders.
“The whole business of being a writer is almost as weird as being a detective.”
“I’ve always loved books on writing, like William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade, and I’ve always wanted to do this,” Horowitz says. “I even tried at one point to write a book about writing, but my problem was that it was rather dull and not really worth reading. So this is my attempt to hone in on it and make it part of the narrative. Because the whole business of being a writer is almost as weird as being a detective.”
Horowitz’s mix of personal fact and fiction within his narrative is already paying off in unexpected ways.
“The people in England have been looking on Google to see if they can work out how much of the book is true and how much of it isn’t,” he says. “And that’s exactly what I wanted the readers to do, in a way. That seems like a fun way to approach it.”
However, Horowitz admits it was a little awkward to insert his wife and two sons into a work of fiction.
“My wife and children were, to say the least, alarmed that they would wind up in my new book, and quite wary as to how they should be treated. . . . My wife did insist on a few changes to make her kinder. What a terrible admission about our relationship!” Horowitz laughs. “We’ve been married 30 years, so we know each other pretty well.”
At age 63, when some writers are dialing back their workload, Horowitz finds himself suddenly in high demand. In addition to his popular Alex Rider teen spy series, Horowitz has completed two Sherlock Holmes sequels, The House of Silk (2011) and Moriarty (2014). This November, he’s following up his James Bond spy thriller Trigger Mortis, which was commissioned by the Ian Fleming estate, with Forever and a Day. He’s also 30,000 words into a Hawthorne sequel, and he couldn’t be happier.
“The plan is to write 10 or 11 of these Hawthorne novels,” he says. “I have five books in my head already, so that just shows how quickly the ideas are coming. . . . Having been a kid’s author and a TV writer, now I want to be a murder mystery writer.”
To which I would humbly add: mission accomplished.
Author photo by Jon Cartwright.