Ever since I discovered Anthony Horowitz in 2019, I’ve been catching up on his previously released novels and eagerly awaiting new ones. I was, therefore, delighted to see A Line to Kill, book #3 in Horowitz’s Hawthorne series, gracing bookstore shelves while I was out Christmas shopping last month. I marched up to my husband and announced, “I’m buying this for my dad, but I would also like to add it to my Christmas list.” Because I have a husband who picks up on these types of subtle hints, I found it under the tree. Hooray!
If you aren’t familiar with the Hawthorne series, it revolves around Horowitz (a character in his own novels) working with former Detective Inspector Daniel Hawthorne to document some of his more interesting cases. Hawthorne is not the easiest person to get along with, and Horowitz often regrets the position he’s been placed in, to follow around a brilliant detective while being made to feel like an idiot, a la Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Horowitz’s publisher has signed up for a three-book deal, so presumably A Line to Kill would be the last in the series.
As the novel opens, Horowitz and his publisher are finalizing the first book in the series, The Word is Murder. Although the book is not yet in print, the publisher suggests that the duo attend a book festival on the small island of Alderney in the British Channel Islands. While he questions the benefit of attending an event before the book is in print, Horowitz nevertheless is attracted to the notion of attending a festival: “I think there’s something wonderful and reassuring about the idea that in the rush of modern life people will still come together and sit for an hour in a theatre, a gymnasium, or a giant tent simply out of a love of books and reading.” (One of the things I enjoy about Horowitz as a writer is that he wears his love of books on his sleeve.) Assuming that Hawthorne, taciturn and aloof, wouldn’t be caught dead near a festival, Horowitz is shocked that his partner agrees enthusiastically to the idea.
As you’ve probably guessed, a murder takes place during the festival, setting up a classic locked-room mystery. Before that happens, though, we’re introduced to the collection of B-list authors attending the event: a French poet, a blind psychic, a celebrity chef, a local historian, and a children’s author. We also meet obnoxious, rich local Charles Mesurier, who made his fortune in online gambling (you can almost hear the boos and hisses), and festival organizer Judith Matheson and her husband Colin, who are embroiled in a conflict with residents who are opposing the installation of a power line on the island. Additionally, a figure from Hawthorne’s past turns up on Alderney, which may explain why he was so willing to come. At times I felt that the characters set up a sort of anti-cozy mystery, the idyllic setting being populated with so many unpleasant individuals.
The novel is engaging and fun, though it felt a little flat to me. For one thing, I started to feel a mixture of pity and annoyance toward narrator Horowitz for coming off as so downtrodden (“Well, he is British,” my husband responded, when I voiced this complaint). He comes off looking foolish so often that I wanted to slap him and shout, “You write murder mysteries FFS, get a clue!” I know he’s the John Watson of this pair, but Watson didn’t write detective fiction for a living.
Second, these mysteries are never super complex, but I picked up on who the killer was pretty easily. I didn’t figure out motive or the details of the crime, but there were enough clues pointing to a particular individual that I saw the big reveal coming and impatiently turned pages, eager to confirm what I already knew. The first rule of mysteries is it’s never the most likely person, and, to be fair, Horowitz never actually expects the reader to believe the obvious choice. He bemoans his own literary assignment when he considers the presumptive guilty party: “. . .I was annoyed that when I did write the book he would end up being in it. What [most obvious guilty character] represented was completely at odds with everything I would enjoy writing about: blue telephone boxes, beaches and fortifications, seagulls, miniature steak and kidney puddings, ginger-haired taxi drivers.” While I like that passage for its charm, it also feels like Horowitz is milking it a bit.
I don’t know, maybe I’ve just read too many mysteries. Maybe I’m getting tired of meta-fiction. Maybe I’m so enamored of the Susan Ryeland/Atticus Pund series that I’ve started grading Horowitz on a curve and I find the Hawthorne series average. I’ll still read more Horowitz/Hawthorne adventures (and given the ending, it seems certain that narrator Horowitz’s publishers will somehow convince him to write a fourth installment), but I’m not setting my expectations as high as I once did.
One final nit, and this is a complaint for the publishers: The series is published by Penguin Books in the U.K. and HarperCollins in the U.S. I suspect that some of the language has been changed for American audiences. In the American version I read, they reference the rich characters going to “private school.” However, in Britain, private school means state school, whereas public school refers to what we in the U.S. would call private school. Confusing, yes, but I have read lots of books and am aware of this distinction. They flip it around in the American version, which only served to confuse me. I presume that dumbing books down for the American audience is a plot to keep Americans dumb. Knock it off, we don’t need the help. Would love confirmation of my suspicion by someone who has read the British edition.
One compliment for the publishers: The cover graphics for the American versions kick ass.