That’s right, I’ve discovered this wonderful mystery writer. Granted, it’s in much the same way that Columbus discovered the New World, and I imagine my fellow Cannonballers looking at me with bemused expressions and saying, “Blimey, mate, he’s been here for ages if you’d bothered to look.” My fellow Cannonballers are all British in this scenario, and they are also correct. Name recognition, which came from reading several reviews on this site, was responsible for my interest in these novels as much as the intriguing descriptions on the dust jackets.
I knew almost immediately that I would enjoy this series, because I realized that Horowitz is also creator of the wonderful Foyle’s War, a near-perfect British mystery series that is only flawed by the unnecessary seasons that take place after World War II ends. There are even references to the show in the novels because, and here’s the gimmick, Horowitz is also a character in this series. The author conjures a curious blend of reality and fiction, at times tempting the reader to turn to the internet to determine which is which. For example, The Word is Murder features an actor named Damian Cowpers, who has had roles in many popular TV series and movies, including Mad Men and the Star Trek reboot. These details ring true enough that I nearly looked up Cowpers on IMDB, until I realized that Googling the “actor” might inadvertently reveal spoilers. For the record, no such actor really exists. Honeysuckle Weeks, on the other hand, is mentioned in the opening pages of The Sentence is Death. Not only is Weeks a real actress who appeared in Foyle’s War, but she also has one of the best names in British television. The point is, Horowitz keeps the reader off-balance with a mix of realism and fiction that makes it difficult to separate the two.
Here’s the setup: Anthony Horowitz is approached by former police detective Daniel Hawthorne, with whom he had worked on the television series Injustice, to write a book about a case Hawthorne is working on. Hawthorne’s a little short of cash and he figures they can split the profits 50/50. Horowitz is reluctant, but eventually he comes around and agrees to the project. Horowitz, for all his experience writing mystery stories, is quickly made to feel like an idiot next to the quick-witted Hawthorne; in fact, Hawthorne gets irritated if the writer so much as asks a question during an interrogation. It’s a classic Holmes-Watson scenario, which is no surprise since Horowitz is clearly a huge Arthur Conan Doyle fan (A Study in Scarlet even figures prominently in The Sentence is Death).
Horowitz both embraces and defies the Doyle similarities by calling them out directly. For one thing, Hawthorne isn’t terribly likable. Sherlock Holmes isn’t exactly a warm and fuzzy character, but he was never a raging homophobe, at least not that I recall. After an uncomfortable encounter with a gay suspect, Horowitz considers backing out of the deal altogether. “If I had sat down to write an original murder mystery story, I wouldn’t have chosen anyone like Hawthorne as its main protagonist. I think the world has had quite enough of white, middle-aged, grumpy detectives and I’d have tried to think up something more unusual. A blind detective, a drunk detective, an OCD detective, a psychic detective. . . they’d all been done. . . .” Here, Horowitz addresses head-on the problem with writing a “new” kind of detective and suggests why he might write about a character that many will find offensive. He goes on to say, “These days, the world sees things in black and white, so although it may be all right for a twenty-first-century novelist to create a character who is homophobic, it will be much more sensible if that character is palpably vile, the villain of the piece.” That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if, as the series continues, we see Hawthorne become more enlightened.
Every detective story needs a bumbling police inspector, and Horowitz addresses that trope as well. “Holmes has Lestrade. Poirot has Japp. Morse often tussled with Chief Superintendent Strange. It’s a simple fact of life that a clever private detective needs a much less clever police officer in much the same way as a photograph needs both light and darkness. Otherwise, there’s no definition.” Sadly, real-life London has thousands of police officers, so we’re not likely to see the same detective character repeated across the series. These first two novels have two very different police inspectors to act as foils to Hawthorne; if this series continues, we may have more police inspectors than Harry Potter had Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers.
Speaking of which, Horowitz loves books. Not unusual for an author, but he peppers his reading list throughout the novels, which is kind of fun. Harry Potter, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle–these are just a few of the names he drops. He’s read Stieg Larsson but found the ending to The Girl Who Played with Fire mildly disappointing. Based on a subplot in The Sentence is Death, he doesn’t seem to be a huge fan of semi-soft core porn fantasy sagas a la Game of Thrones, either.
One thing I have to say about Horowitz: he plays fair. No sneaking around not giving the reader a fair shot at solving the mystery. For example, 57 pages into The Sentence is Death, Horowitz writes, “So far I had missed three clues and misconstrued two more.” Five potentially missed/confused clues in the first 57 pages! If that doesn’t send a reader scrambling back to see what they missed, I don’t know what will. Does it help? It didn’t in my case, although I was pleased to have figured out one part of the mystery contained in The Word is Murder before our hapless author did.
These novels do have a very “British mystery series” feel to them. They are fun and light, and I’m looking forward to more. Now if you’ll excuse me, I hear there’s a British woman who’s written some mysteries featuring a Belgian, mustachioed detective that I need to check out.