The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz

A quirk too far…

🙂 🙂 🙂

One spring morning, Diana Cowper, a healthy woman in her sixties, calls into a local undertaker’s and arranges her own funeral. Nothing too uncommon about this, especially since she is a widow and her only son has moved to the States to pursue his successful acting career. But it takes on a very different aspect when, later that same day, she is strangled to death in her own home. Disgraced ex-policeman Daniel Hawthorne is called in by his old boss to investigate the crime on a consulting basis. Hawthorne thinks it would be a great idea if someone were to write a book showing him in action – and he knows just the man for the job…

Horowitz is one of the cleverest plotters out there at the moment and I’ve loved his last several books. In this one, however, I feel he allows that cleverness to lead him down a route that, for me at least, becomes too quirky to be totally enjoyable. It transpires that the man Hawthorne has in mind to write his book is none other than Horowitz himself. So the fictional mystery quickly gets blended into a lot of, I assume, largely factual stuff about Horowitz’s actual writing career. My problem with this is that either his characterisation of himself is heavily fictionalised, in which case, what’s the point? Or it’s mostly true, in which case, sadly, I found him a rather unlikeable chap with an overhealthy sense of his own worth and importance, who simply loves to name-drop. I spent most of the book trying to convince myself he was attempting to be humorous by deliberately showing himself off as a cultural snob and an aspiring lovey, but if so, it wasn’t made clear enough. I tired quickly of the long digressions where he breaks away from the story to discuss the making of Foyle’s War, the amazing success of his books, or his meetings with Steven Spielberg and David Jackson to discuss film scripts, even though he occasionally attempts to include a bit of self-deprecatory humour.

I’ve said before that personally I prefer not to know much about authors since knowing about their personalities can get in the way of my appreciation of their books. I therefore avoid literary biographies and autobiographies of all but the long dead, and rarely read author interviews or articles about them for the same reason. So I’m aware that my adverse reaction to this book arises out of that dislike and therefore won’t be the same for readers who do like to know about authors’ lives – in fact, I’m almost certain they’ll find this aspect adds a lot of fun.

Anthony Horowitz
(www.telegraph.co.uk)

Otherwise, the plotting is excellent, as is the quality of the writing. The clues are all given, so in that sense it’s fairplay, though I think it would take a healthy dose of luck for anyone to get close to the solution – I certainly didn’t. The story goes to some dark places but there’s a lot of humour so that the overall tone is of a light entertainment. Hawthorne didn’t ring true to me at all, nor did the idea that a policeman who had been sacked would be called in on a murder investigation, but I didn’t feel Horowitz was really going for realism. To be truthful, I’m not altogether sure what he was going for. He’s clearly doing a kind of update of the Holmes/Watson relationship – he gives the impression that he was writing this at the same time as his excellent books set in the Holmesian world, The House of Silk and Moriarty. But, unlike Holmes and Watson, I found neither of these characters particularly admirable or likeable. And an awful lot of the “detection” element simply consists of characters giving great long uninterrupted speeches explaining all the various events in their pasts that have some connection with the present-day crime.

Overall, I found it a reasonably enjoyable read but, probably at least in part because of my high expectations, something of a disappointment. I’m sure most Horowitz fans will enjoy it and have already seen several people praise it highly, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend it as one for newcomers to his work. And I’m hoping I can get Horowitz the character out of my head before Horowitz the author publishes his next book…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Cornerstone.

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Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Two for the price of one…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

magpie-murdersSusan Ryeland, editor for Cloverleaf Books, settles down happily to read the new manuscript from their star author – Magpie Murders by Alan Conway. Susan may not like the author, but she loves his books, a series of Golden Age style mysteries starring Atticus Pund and his sidekick James Fraser. But she will find that on this occasion the mystery extends beyond the book, and murder might have leapt from the pages into real life…

This is a witty, clever take on the vintage mystery, with more than a nod to the Queen of Crime herself, Agatha Christie. It is in fact two books – the one involving Susan and “real” life, and the fictional book involving Atticus Pund and a gruesome murder in the village of Saxby-on-Avon. The format is weird and on the whole successful, and it’s certainly highly original and entertaining. After a quick introduction to Susan, the reader settles down with her to read the fictional book, which is then given in its entirety up to just before the dénouement. I must say it’s a fantastic take on a Christie murder – country house, lots of characters all with secrets and motives, a nicely unpleasant victim so we don’t have to venture into grief territory, some great clues and red herrings, an intriguing detective in the German-born Pund, and a rather charming if intellectually challenged sidekick in James. Like Christie, it gets that perfect balance between dark and light, depth and entertainment. It left me even more baffled than before as to why the Christie estate hadn’t got Horowitz to do the Poirot follow-ons – he’d have made a vastly better job of it than poor Sophie Hannah’s rather dreadful attempt.

The real life mystery is just as good and the links between the two are ingenious – some easier to spot than others. I did spot the giveaway clue in this story as it happened and so worked out the murderer fairly early on, but I was baffled by the mystery in the fictional book. Again in the “real” story there are plenty of suspects, all with good motives to have done away with the victim. (Forgive the vagueness – the plotting in this one is so intricate, and half the fun is in seeing how it works, so I’m trying hard not to give any accidental spoilers.) There are alibis to work out, connections to be made and misdirection galore. Susan is a likeable protagonist, and her love of books means there are endless references to various mystery writers – a treat for any fan of vintage mystery stories, but not at all problematic for anyone who hasn’t read widely in the genre. There are also lots of sly digs at the world of writing, publishing, book awards, etc., which add greatly to the fun. Both mysteries are fairplay, I’d say, and all the red herrings are explained in the end.

Anthony Horowitz
Anthony Horowitz

My hesitation about the format is a small one. I found that all the time I was reading the story within the story, I was conscious that another story was to come and that made me very aware that the fictional book was fictional. Normally, I can forget the fictional nature of a mystery and treat it as “real” but I found I was more distanced with this one, and I really wanted to know what was going to happen in the real section. Then, when eventually it flips to Susan’s story, I really wanted to get back to find out what happened in the final chapters of the fictional one! I found I wasn’t always totally absorbed in the bit I was reading for thinking about the other storyline. Of course, though this was the teensiest bit annoying, it also shows just how interesting both stories were.

However, when I reached the end and the two parts were each finished off beautifully satisfactorily, my minor discontent evaporated and I could wholeheartedly applaud the skill with which Horowitz had pulled the whole thing off. (Horowitz is one of very few authors who always seems to make me want to give him a standing ovation at the end for the sheer exuberance of his plotting. I imagine he must have had a whiteboard big enough to be seen from space to keep track of all the clues… ) Effectively it’s two books for the price of one – two complete mysteries, linked but separate, with different solutions but each feeding into the other. Again, as with his take on the Holmes mysteries, Horowitz has shown how effectively he can play with these much-loved, established fictional worlds, always affectionately but always with an original twist that prevents them from being mere pastiche. Great stuff, that I’m sure will be enjoyed by any mystery fan. Bravo, Mr Horowitz… encore!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion.

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Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz

Bravo, Mr Horowitz! Encore! Encore!!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It was as if the world were ending here in a perpetual apocalypse of thundering water and spray rising like steam, the birds frightened away and the sun blocked out. The walls that enclosed this raging deluge were jagged and harsh and old as Rip van Winkle.

moriartyIt is the year 1891, just after Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty have fought their final battle at Reichenbach Falls. Our narrator is Frederick Chase, a Pinkerton man, in Europe on the trail of a criminal mastermind, one Clarence Devereux, who he believes is responsible for killing one of his colleagues. Devereux has decided to extend his operations beyond his native America and has come to London, and Chase believes he has been in contact with Professor Moriarty, so on hearing of Moriarty’s death he has rushed to Switzerland to discover whether he can find any clue to Devereux’s whereabouts. Here he meets Inspector Athelney Jones of Scotland Yard, also over to investigate the happenings at the Reichenbach Falls and they quickly form an alliance to hunt Devereux down and to stop the wave of violent crime sweeping through London.

Holmes and Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls - by Sidney Paget
Holmes and Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls – by Sidney Paget

I enjoyed Horowitz’s first foray into the Holmesian world, The House of Silk, very much, feeling he got Watson’s voice more nearly than any other faux-Holmes I had read. But this one is truly outstanding – one of the best books I’ve read all year by a wide margin. When I saw that it was set during the period when Holmes was ‘dead’ and that Watson wasn’t to be the narrator, I was disappointed, but not for long. It’s a brilliantly clever device that allows Horowitz to work firmly within Holmes’ world but without the pitfalls of characterisation or tone that so often beset ‘continuation’ novels. I won’t tell you more about the plot, because almost anything I say could be a potential spoiler. I’ll merely say it’s fantastic – Horowitz played me like a fish with intellectual challenges and made me laugh at my own stupefaction. It’s fast-moving and complicated, but not in the way that makes the reader feel lost – Horowitz keeps us on top of the story all the way through – or at least we think we are!

It was formed of brick walls and vaulted ceilings with arches, dozens of them arranged opposite each other in two lines. Steel girders had been fixed in place above our heads with hooks suspended on the ends of rusting chains. The floor consisted of cobblestones, centuries old and heavily worn, with tramlines swerving and criss-crossing each other on their way into the bowels of the earth. Everything was gaslit, the lamps throwing a luminescent haze that hung suspended in mid-air, like a winter’s fog.

Photo: Museum of London
Photo: Museum of London

Chase is a great character who rapidly takes on the role of Watson to Athelney Jones’ Holmes. Jones, as Holmes geeks may recall, was the detective who appeared in The Sign of the Four, and has developed a complex about Watson’s unflattering portrait of him in that story. So he has devoted himself to mastering all of Holmes’ techniques, meaning that we get a lovely pastiche of Holmes within the story, which stops us missing the Master too much. And Chase writes just as wonderfully as Watson, so that side’s covered too. The story easily stands on its own – it’s not necessary to be a Holmes geek to follow it, but there are loads of references to the original stories which add immensely to the fun if you are. For example, we finally learn all about the mystery of the parsley in the butter…

Anthony Horowitz
Anthony Horowitz

There’s constant excitement, terrifying peril, touches of horror, brilliant descriptions of London and enough humour to keep the tone light. The writing is superb, totally within character and as good as Conan Doyle’s own. The tone feels completely right for a Holmes book and the world of the book is absolutely the one in which Holmes lived and worked. And the only word I can find for the climax is awesome! So clever I read the last part of the book with a huge grin on my face, out of sheer pleasure and admiration. And then metaphorically rose to my feet and offered Mr Horowitz a well-deserved standing ovation…

You won’t be surprised to learn that I think you should read this. It’s a very special thing for Holmes fans, but it’s a great historical crime thriller in its own right too. Magnificent!

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The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

The House of SilkThe authentic Watsonian voice…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Of all the Holmes pastiches I have read (and there have been many), Horowitz has, I believe, achieved the most authentic Watsonian voice. For most of the time, it is possible to believe the book was written by Conan Doyle, the master storyteller, himself. All the regular characters are there – Inspector Lestrade, Mrs Hudson, brother Mycroft – and as a Holmes fanatic, I wasn’t conscious of any of those jarring inconsistencies that mar many a Holmes tribute. The plot is complex and well written, and we see Holmes both as the calculating thinker and as the man of action. The Holmes/Watson relationship is very faithfully portrayed.

Anthony Horowitz (www.telegraph.co.uk)
Anthony Horowitz
(www.telegraph.co.uk)

However, I felt that sometimes Horowitz allowed the tone to stray quite far from the originals. For example, Watson’s concern for the contrast of rich and poor, his reflections on the street urchins, smacked more of Dickens than Conan Doyle. Suddenly the Baker Street Irregulars are no longer the cheeky, street-smart gang of old; now they are to be pitied for their poverty and the harshness of their lives. All true, of course, but not in keeping with the originals. I also felt that the main strand of the plot was well outside the bounds that Conan Doyle would have set and as a result in the latter stages it got more difficult to forget that this was not the genuine article.

In the Kindle version, there is included a very interesting essay by Horowitz where he describes how he came to write the book (he was invited to write it by the estate of Conan Doyle – the first time they have issued such an invitation) and lays out the ten rules he set himself, before beginning to write, to try to ensure an authentic flavour. He admits that he broke one or two of the rules along the way and I feel that was a pity – had he managed to stay within them I believe the end result would have been as close to perfect as any homage could be.

Notwithstanding these criticisms, which I am sure would only bother other Holmes pedants like myself, I think this is a very good read, well written, well plotted and full of interest. The best faux-Holmes I have read, I would recommend this to existing fans and newcomers alike.

Basil Rathbone - the best Holmes of all. Don't you agree?
Basil Rathbone – the best Holmes of all.
Don’t you agree?

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