Century | 2017 (24 August) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book
One morning Diana Cowper walks into a funeral parlour in London to make preparations for her own funeral, right down to the make of coffin and the service hymns. She’s a widow and her son is a famous actor far away in Hollywood so such organisation seems sensible. But that night Diana is dead, murdered in her own home. A coincidence? Ex-detective Daniel Hawthorne, who has been called in by his previous boss to investigate, is certain that there’s nothing coincidental about it. He needs a helping hand (and some cash) to prove it and so, rather like Holmes needs his Watson and Poirot needs his Hastings, Hawthorne calls on his old contact, crime writer Anthony Horowitz, to aid his enquiries while, at the same time, recording it all for a true crime book on Hawthorne. The title, of course, shall be Hawthorne’s choice.
And so we embark on a classic whodunnit, narrated by Anthony Horowitz. Red herrings abound, as do the cast members of this mystery, but overshadowing events is the memory of a terrible day in Diana’s past. But, as Hawthorne and Horowitz investigate, a can of worms is stirred up and it’s all Hawthorne can do to contain it. Horowitz has his own ideas and he’s not too keen on being dragged around like some hapless assistant in a Victorian or early 20th-century crime novel. He has his own ideas. Unfortunately, Horowitz is far better at writing fiction than he is at investigating murder.
Of course, Anthony Horowitz isn’t just our narrator, he’s also our novelist, and so The Word is Murder takes us into some very strange territory indeed. The line between fiction and reality is muddied entirely and making it even more murky are the continuous asides in which Horowitz discusses actual moments in his life and career, notably his screenwriting for the TV series Foyles War, his Alex Rider novels and his efforts to pen the second Tintin movie for Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson. And then there’s the mention of actual editors and publishers, the real difficulty of fitting this crime book into his schedule, and his frustration at being at the beck and call of the enigmatic Hawthorne.
It’s all very odd. But what makes this novel – because it most definitely is a work of fiction – is the character of Hawthorne. I loved Hawthorne! And it’s Hawthorne who hooked me from the first page and kept me gripped. He’s a fantastic character. Enormously irritating and secretive and yet, one suspects, immensely gifted and maybe even caring. He’s such a charismatic personality. He’s backed up by an excellent story. As mentioned, The Word is Murder is a classic whodunnit. The clues are there. They are worked out with great intelligence and deduction and the relationship between Hawthorne and Horowitz purposefully reminds us of some of the relationships of golden crime fiction.
I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t like The Word is Murder. I’m not generally a fan of such a self-consciously clever conceit. It’s clear from the outset that if Horowitz, a famous novelist, is narrating a book with the benefit of hindsight then we shouldn’t be too unclear on its outcome. He does reflect on this issue late into the book. But, to my surprise, I found myself absorbed in the story and its easy, entertaining and witty style from the very first chapter. Anthony Horowitz writes so well, with some very humorous touches, and I loved how the book used some of the ideas and methods of Holmes and Poirot, especially Holmes.
The conceit of The Word is Murder may not have worked in less able hands but Anthony Horowitz certainly pulls it off. I loved the red herrings and the surprises, the deadly situations and the suspense. Assured by the quality of the writing, I settled down to enjoy the game. A clever touch is that the events of the novel are set in the early 2010s and we learn that the delay in publishing is due to Horowitz’s commitment to work on other books first. These little touches are ingenious. The story is clever but so too is its telling. My little grey cells enjoyed it enormously.