I should say at the outset that I haven’t read much of Anthony Horowitz’s output. I am not a fan of either James Bond or Sherlock Holmes and so his novels in homage to those authors didn’t appeal to me and, for the same reason, I didn’t tackle the Alex Rider books, which I saw as 007 in miniature. I had, however, read some of his earlier work for children. My year six classes loved The Diamond Brother series, which begins with the magnificently titled The Falcon’s Malteser, and I also very much enjoyed The Pentagram Series, which I think was among the first work that Horowitz had published. But, when Magpie Murders came out I was given a copy and, as it appeared to be a stand alone novel, read it, quite enjoyed it and so decided that perhaps I should give Horowitz another whirl. I say ‘quite’ enjoyed it because part of me thought that the almost tortured plotting of Magpie Murders was not so much about writing a darned good crime novel as about being clever. I am always wary of clever.
Well, The Word is Murder is clever too and I approach writing a review of it with the same wary attitude. The conceit is simple. Horowitz himself is challenged first by Hawthorne, an ex-detective with whom he has worked on a television series, and then by a member of the audience at the Hay Festival, to write crime fiction that is real.
There was a woman, sitting in the front row. At first, I’d taken her for a teacher or perhaps a librarian. She was very ordinary-looking, about forty, round-faced with long, fair hair and glasses dangling from a chain around her neck. I’d noticed her because she seemed to be on her own and also because she didn’t seem particularly interested in anything I had to say. She hadn’t laughed at any of my jokes. I was afraid she might be a journalist. Newspapers often send reporters to author talks these days and any joke you make, any unguarded comments, maybe quoted out of context and used against you. So I was on my guard when she put up her hand and one of the attendants handed her the roving mike.
‘I was wondering,’ she said.’Why is it that you always write fantasy? Why don’t you write anything real?’
The woman goes on to suggest that even though Horowitz uses true stories as the basis for much of his work the crimes aren’t real and that as a consequence his books aren’t relevant. Her comments are the spur he needs to take up Hawthorne’s earlier suggestion that Horowitz shadows him on an investigation he has been asked to take up and write about a real murder, focusing just on the facts of the case as they become apparent, with no diversions into the lives of the investigators concerned and no flights of fancy about the intricacies of police work.
At this point my notes start to say things like Does putting yourself into a story make it real? and Is this about the process of writing? The gap between reality and how you translate that reality into a believable fiction? I am also thinking ‘clever’ and not in a good way.
Well, the answer to the first of those questions is definitely a resounding No. Within two or three chapters I had stopped thinking of Horowitz as a real person at all. I suppose the nearest parallel would be to see him as Watson to Hawthorne’s Holmes, utilising the conceit that he is chronicling the detective’s case, but the idea that this was real crime never once crossed my mind. It’s a rattling good mystery with the usual bolshie detective and his rather less than quick-witted side-kick. What’s new?
However, it is a strong enough story to hold a reader’s interest. Diana Cowper goes into an undertaker’s establishment and asks to arrange her own funeral. It’s not that unusual a request. Many people like to preplan their own service these days. What is less than usual is the fact that later that day she is murdered. Well, no detective worth their salt likes coincidences such as that and so an investigation is launched. For a long time attention is given to an accident that occured almost ten years previously in which Diana, driving without her glasses, killed one eight year old boy and severely injured his twin brother. However, when on the day of her funeral, her son, Hollywood superstar, Damian, is also murdered, the focus of the investigation is widened out. Could it be that he was the real target of the murderer’s ire all along? Well, the truth will soon become apparent because, as in all good crime stories, in the end the bad guy bites the dust. Would that the same was true in real life.
Along the way a number of identifiable people and actual places are included in the story, but did that make me see it as any more real than any other detective fiction? Not for a moment. And, the fact that on the Fantastic Fiction site this is listed as the first in the Detective Daniel Hawthorne series only goes to reinforce that. We don’t organise our lives to fit a series. If you enjoy a good crime novel ignore the conceit and just read this as such. Forget the clever, enjoy the fiction.