Thoughts on “The Word is Murder” by Anthony Horowitz

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If Anthony Horowitz isn’t a more familiar name to you, he should be. Fans of the BBC known him firstly as the creator of Foyle’s War, among the best TV mysteries ever. Others know him as the author of the Alex Rider series of YA spy novels. On occasion, he turns his busy pen to more adult novels. His last, Magpie Murders, was a witty delight about the mores and conventions of the modern mystery, wrapped nicely around a good puzzle.

Now he’s sent two new books out the gate at once. One of them is Forever and a Day (a James Bond novel). What concerns us here is The Word is Murder, a standalone follow-up to Magpie.

In Magpie, Horowitz cleverly touched on the tensions between fictional crime and real-life crime. In The Word is Murder, he goes farther and deeper with excellent results. It’s that’s rarest of books in this hyper-serious era — a genuine tour-de-force and a great excuse to stay put in your reading chair.

The novel opens with the last day in the life of Diana Cowper, a middle-aged Englishwoman and theatre enthusiast. She starts her day arranging her own funeral. By the end of it, she’s been murdered, strangled with a curtain rope.

Scotland Yard, as you’d expect, is baffled by a murder whose victim seems to have anticipated her own demise. For help, they turn reluctantly to Daniel Hawthorne, a former investigator, to help crack the case. Dismissed in disgrace from the force some years before, Hawthorne now freelances as a technical advisor to both BBC mystery shows and the Yard, two relationships driven by necessity and steeped in mutual distaste.

Hawthorne brings his own agenda to the hunt for Ms. Cowper’s murderer: He plans to publish a book about himself to settle some scores and restore his tattered reputation. No writer himself, this modern Sherlock Holmes needs a Watson to follow alongside as he brilliantly solves the murder of Diana Cowper, revealing his genius to the world.

For his Watson, Hawthorne reaches out to a writer, a former client whom he advised on a previous BBC mystery show, a real one in fact, known by the title Injustice. Its writer was a noted screenwriter and novelist, a guy named . . . Anthony Horowitz.

Like everyone else at Scotland Yard and beyond, once around the track with Hawthorne was enough for Horowitz. Even so, despite his reservations, he finds himself drawn to Hawthorne’s offer and the crime in question.

The collaboration is a rocky one from the start as Hawthorne rips up Horowitz’s first chapter (which you’ll have just read). His demanding presence knocks Horowitz’s writing life off its keel, culminating in a disastrous encounter between Horowitz, Hawthorne and two real-life pop-culture titans, a hilarious moment that will be an absolute hoot if it ever makes it to the screen.

Despite the chaos brought by Hawthorne, there’s nothing like murder to get a genre writer’s juices flowing and Horowitz, fascinated by his rather repellent but brilliant client, slowly becomes determined to stick with the case, no matter how obnoxious Hawthorne becomes or how great the dangers that lay in wait.

Anthony Horowitz clearly had a swell time weaving himself into his own novel. He makes the most of it as he deftly maneuvers that weird territory between the real-life creator of Foyle’s War and the meta-fictional Horowitz who becomes entangled in a mystery novel. What’s factual and what’s not is one of the book’s entertaining puzzles.

The Word is Murder could have wound up a dispensable bit of self-referential post-modernism but instead provides a vivid, funny look at the joys and frustrations of a successful writer’s life. It also explores the problems inherent in the creation of literary characters. Saints make for bad pasteboard heroes in fiction, but, we all wonder, how much bad can we put up with in our good guys?

Hawthorne, you should know, is a flaming bastard, a bigot who’s smart about many things but ignorant of much else, a man sometimes deeply “unwoke.” He may be the intellectual equal of Sherlock Holmes, but he makes Holmes seem like Philip Marlowe as played by George Clooney.

Horowitz never answers this question — as a novelist myself, I’d say there really isn’t an answer beyond “whatever I think I can get away with.” But he makes it stick nicely in the memory, long after events draw to the suspenseful action-packed finish.

While he can’t provide an answer regarding Hawthorne, Horwitz does provide an antidote with his charming and genial self-portrait. We learn a fair bit about Anthony Horowitz, the successful writer as he gracefully takes us behind the scenes of the world of TV, theatre and movie productions and even into the back parlors of the funeral business.

The Word is Murderis a fun read that leaves you thinking. I can’t wait for the movie. And I bet Horowitz can’t either. Read carefully, and you’ll find a clue as to whom he wants cast as Hawthorne. I don’t know about you, but I’ll be watching.

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Thomas Burchfield is the author of Butchertown,a ripping, 1920s gangster thriller that was praised as “incendiary” by David Corbett. (The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday; The Art of Character)His contemporary vampire novel Dragon’s Arkwon the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil andDracula: Endless Night (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon,Barnes and Noble, Powell’s Books, and other retailers. His reviews have appeared in Bright Lights Film Journaland The Strand and he recently published a two-part look at the life and career of the great film villain (and spaghetti western star) Lee Van Cleef in Filmfax. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Originally published at on January 16, 2019.

The author of BUTCHERTOWN, a 1920s gangster thriller and DRAGON’S ARK, a contemporary Dracula tale, both published through Ambler House Publishing.

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