Having read Magpie Murders quite recently and been impressed, I was very much looking forward to this one. So here we go:
A woman arranges her funeral: six hours later she is murdered. Is there any connection with a tragic car accident that took place ten years ago? What does her famous son have to do with it? And does it matter whether or not there was a bell in the funeral parlour?
Author Anthony Horowitz becomes drawn into the crime by Daniel Hawthorne, who is a Holmes in search of a Watson – although wishing for rather more dry, technical accuracy than either Watson or Horowitz provides or any audience is likely to put up with. Hawthorne is an ex-policeman and now consultant for the police with the standard brilliance of deduction aligned with a blunt and unattractive personality. Horowitz initially turns down his offer but is goaded into reconsidering after a questioner at a literary festival suggests that his work isn’t ‘real’. He follows Hawthorne, with a sort of exasperated compulsion, as they track down the suspects and clues down a twisty path to a surprising conclusion.
The plot is very much in the traditional style, with clues akimbo, a moderate pool of suspects and some nice respectable red herrings along the way (I made a shrewd but oh-so-wrong guess at one particular plot development before discovering it was a deliberate elephant trap designed for mugs like me to plop right into). The relationship between Horowitz and Hawthorne is along suitably Watson/Holmes lines, with Horowitz constantly a step or more behind, but it has an antagonistic edge rather reminiscent of a buddy movie (or even a haters-to-lovers rom-com) as Horowitz’s initial wariness blossoms into full-blown dislike but then is tempered by a growing respect and half-reluctant fascination.
But the most striking – and to some extent jarring – feature of the book is Horowitz’s self-insertion. This is not merely a case of giving the character his name and – presumably – some aspects of his personality (though subsumed in the Watson character) but includes details of his actual work and of his family. Real people, such as Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson are not only mentioned but have cameos.
And the effect of this dose of reality is, perhaps paradoxically, to highlight the artificiality of the book. It’s a little like a real life action film with cartoon characters grafted on. This, to me, is somewhat to the detriment of the story, which I struggled to get invested in despite the great set-up, but it does make it feel like something quite different: a study of the construction of a novel and, in particular, a character. Hawthorne is curt and enigmatic but with each meeting something new is revealed about himr. And, in this structure, it felt to me as if Horowitz was building him piece by piece into a classic Great Detective: with a carefully designed flaw here, offset by a virtue there: the arrogant personality; the brilliant deductive ability; a detestable homophobia; the clearly loving relationship with his son; an – alleged – capacity for violence; an occasional vulnerability – and, of course, a few colourful quirks.
This exposing of the construction of the novel is emphasised by many references to clues already laid in the narrative and discussion of the need for truthfulness and accuracy – which, it is implied, may not be exactly the same thing. Horowitz – the character – makes a couple of references to being a minor character in his own book or not in control: which, if course, he isn’t as, ultimately, he is just as much a fictional character as Hawthorne (and, digressing, how galling it must be to discover that: A. There is a god; B. She/he is precisely as sadistic as you imagined must be the case and C. “It was you all along!”).
Reading this was an interesting experience and it made me think about how ‘real’ any book could possibly be. As soon as it lands on the page – perhaps as soon as it develops in the mind – even the most faithful reportage must be at least step removed from reality. And any good novel, however gritty or emotionally true, needs to be several steps further removed, in order for a narrative satisfaction to be achieved and too much tedious and too much unnecessary detail excised (though I’m a sucker for just a little unnecessary detail, if it’s engagingly presented).
The blurb – and story – having suggested that this is the first in a series of Hawthorne and Horowitz investigations, it will be interesting to see how this develops.