The Word Is Murder by Anthony Horowitz

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Anthony Horowitz is  a prolific writer of TV drama and screenplays and well-known for his novels for children and young adults, the Alex Rider adventure series in particular. His first book for adults was the Sherlock Holmes novel The House of Silk, and he followed that up with a sequel, two James Bond books and Magpie Murders, a  mystery-within-a-mystery that combined the unfinished manuscript of a fictional crime writer with the mystery of the writer's own death.

I only mention all this because it's relevant to The Word Is Murder, a whodunnit quite unlike any other that I've read. Because in The Word Is Murder, Anthony Horowitz is a character in his own book. There are references to his real-life projects, such as the TV series he wrote, Foyle's War, and the time he was in talks with Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson to write a script about Tintin, and to his preferred ways of working and his meetings with agents and publishers. He talks about his wife and sons, his flat, his friends. Essentially, The Word Is Murder is not just a murder mystery, but also the story of Anthony Horowitz writing a murder mystery. It's Anthony Horowitz writing the story of Anthony Horowitz writing the story.

If you think this sounds complicated or confusing, though, it really isn't. This isn't pretentious metafiction: it's a thoroughly entertaining, witty, skilfully constructed murder mystery, and at its heart is the relationship between Horowitz himself (for the purposes of this review I'll call him Anthony when I'm referring to his character in the book) and his detective, Daniel Hawthorne.

The premise is set up when Hawthorne, an ex-police officer who once acted as an adviser on a television series written by Anthony, turns up at Anthony's office with a proposition. Hawthorne, now a private investigator working for the Metropolitan Police as a consultant detective, wants Anthony (or 'Tony', as he insists on calling him ) to shadow him as he investigates a murder so Anthony can write a book about it and split the profits with him 50-50.

Anthony is initially appalled by the proposal - apart from anything else, the blunt, stubborn Hawthorne is a man he greatly dislikes - but, smarting from a comment made by an audience member at the Hay Festival about the lack of realism in his work, he eventually agrees to accompany Hawthorne to the crime scene and becomes, against his better judgement, drawn into the intriguing mystery of a woman murdered on the very day she visited an undertaker to plan her own funeral.

The whodunnit storyline itself is a satisfying one, full of twists and red herrings. Plot-wise, it's an old-school detective story in the best of ways, with shades of Conan Doyle and Christie (to whom Horowitz also paid homage in Magpie Murders) among others, and indeed, the story is littered with references to other mystery writers and their creations. But what puts The Word Is Murder among the best of the crime fiction I've read in the last few years is its detective.

In Hawthorne, Horowitz has somehow managed to create a character who to those around him is almost entirely without charm, yet at the same time strangely compelling. Anthony is constantly infuriated by Hawthorne's rudeness and lack of empathy, disgusted by his chain-smoking and even more so by his startling homophobia, offended by his lack of tact, perpetually frustrated by his refusal to even attempt to understand the process of writing a book, and repeatedly foiled by his deviousness.

Moreover, Hawthorne flatly refuses to share any details at all of his private life, giving Anthony almost nothing to go on when it comes to developing him as a character. And yet Anthony is, despite himself, fascinated by Hawthorne, whose eye for detail and remarkable deductive powers - and, indeed, his very secretiveness about his personal life - somehow pull Anthony back into the investigation after every disagreement. How much of Hawthorne's more outrageous behaviour is mere social awkwardness - there is, as Anthony sometimes observes, a curious innocence about him at times - and how much of it is wily misdirection?

I mustn't neglect to mention, however, that Horowitz also writes his own character, Anthony, brilliantly. One might imagine that it would be easy to write a character who is essentially oneself, but I personally think it must be very difficult to do this anywhere near as well as Horowitz does here.  Anthony's constant desire to outwit Hawthorne and his annoyance at being relegated to the role of sidekick in his own book are not only self-deprecating but also very funny, as is the moment when he is forced to wear a murder victim's expensive Italian shoes in an emergency and, upon realising how comfortable they are, guiltily decides to keep them.

The Word Is Murder is clever in a way that never feels laboured or gimmicky, and draws on the traditions of the best of detective fiction while while still retaining a genuine originality that really helps it stand out from the crowd. It's now available in paperback and its follow-up, called The Sentence Is Death and which I've already started reading, has just been published in hardback. Both are available for Kindle, of course, and as audiobooks beautifully read by Rory Kinnear.