“‘We’re going to miss you,’ (the receptionist) said. ‘We’re not used to this sort of excitement here in Alderny. We’ve never had a murder here before.’
“‘You’re not the first person to tell me that,’ I said.”
When it comes to literary festivals, Anthony Horowitz knows whereof he speaks. The creator of Midsomer Murders and Foyle’s War, reviver in novel form of both Sherlock Holmes and James Bond (his third Bond adventure, With a Mind to Kill, debuts in May 2022), and author of three hit book series (featuring Alex Rider, Susan Ryland, or Daniel Hawthorne) has attended many of these and has attested that the authors tend to have as much fun as the book lovers. Meeting the fans has its benefits, I’m sure, but it’s the interaction with friends in the writing and publishing community that gives a sort of “college reunion” feel to these events, in the best sort of ways.
Thus, it was inevitable that Anthony Horowitz, the fictional screenwriter and best-selling creator of television mysteries and crime fiction, would show up at one of these festivals, that there would be reason to drag along his unlikely mate, ex-Inspector Daniel Hawthorne, and that murder would inevitably follow. And that is exactly what occurs at the start of A Line to Kill, the third in Horowitz’ ongoing series where he has cast himself as Hawthorne’s reluctant and typically bumbling Watson.
So let me get the thing I don’t like out of the way first: I know that 99.9% of the people who read Horowitz’ books are not niche book bloggers and GAD mystery nerds, who listen to podcasts about crime fiction and look up interviews on YouTube when their buddy judges a writing competition that Anthony Horowitz is in charge of. I know that any author has a right to create a fictional version of himself. I even know that the most brilliant armchair detective, even one who writes the things himself, will most likely find that brilliance floating out the window should he come across a “real” murder case. That said, I have seen and heard Mr. Horowitz speak. I have enjoyed the wit of his writing and the intelligence of his plotting. What is happening to me as a result of this is that the fictional version of “Horowitz”, the one who misses clues right and left, who is disrespected by the police, publishing, and fan communities at every turn, and who is at a complete disadvantage in his prickly relationship with the secretive and difficult Hawthorne – that Horowitz is getting on my nerves!
More realistic is the ego-slash-insecurity of “Horowitz” which he just may share with his creator – and with every person who puts pen to paper in hopes of publication. We see this when Hawthorne and “Horowitz” are searching the home of a suspect in hopes of discerning whether he might be a murderer or even another victim:
“I wandered over to the side of the room and cast my eye over the long lines of books arranged on sagging wooden shelves that covered an entire wall. I’m afraid to say that old habits die hard and I was half looking for any sign of my own books. Worse still, I was quite gratified to find a hardback edition of Moriarty next to a complete collection of Sherlock Holmes. I didn’t allow it to change my opinion of (the suspect) in any way, of course.”
One of the best things about A Line to Kill are the signs that the more negative aspects of “Horowitz” relationship are changing. As insensitive as Hawthorne has always been toward “Horowitz,” the author concedes, sometimes begrudgingly and other times with a sense of propriety, the detective’s brilliance at elucidating the truth. This time around, it seems that Hawthorne is acknowledging . . . well, not that “Horowitz” has value in detection, but that he’s a good sort of mate to have around. The Watson is starting to understand the rules of behavior for when he follows his own personal Holmes around, starting with “Don’t butt in with your own questions.” (“Horowitz” only breaks this one once or twice.) We also see forward movement in the overarching saga of Hawthorne’s mysterious backstory, largely due to the presence here of Derek Abbott, the alleged pedophile/pornographer who is responsible for Hawthorne getting kicked out of the Yard. (The coincidence of Abbott being part of this community – and Hawthorne’s next case – perhaps strains credulity just a tad.)
The festival here, like most of the novel, is set in Alderney, the northernmost of the Channel Islands, which had a notorious history during World War II, when it was occupied by the Germans, who built two work camps and two concentration camps, along with fortifications they planned to use in their sustained attack on Britain. (The charming novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, is set during this occupation.) It is now a residential community, and its residents are at each other’s throats due to a proposal to build a power line that will run right through the island. A gathering of writers should be a perfect respite from this brewing civil war, but it’s not. First, the main sponsor of the event, piggish business tycoon Charles le Mesurier, is one of the folks backing the power line, earning him the wrath of long-time residents. Also, the assortment of writers who have been invited to speak are as motley as it gets: a successful cookbook author and TV host who is also a lout; a woman who has made a fortune on her diabetes-related blindness, especially since it has given her the ability to contact the dead; a local historical writer who is one of the chief opponents of the power line; a French poet-performance artist who seems to plagiarize most of what she writes; and the successful creator of that super-powered team of twins, Bill and Kitty Flashbang.
Despite the lack of collegiality between the Festival hosts, most of the writers, and their assorted hangers-on, any mystery reader will spot Charles le Mesurier as the victim-in-waiting. When he does get brutally murdered at a party he is hosting at his ultra-modern mansion in honor of the Festival, the circumstances surrounding his death are violent and bizarre enough to confound the local constabulary, who invite Hawthorne to assist in the investigations.
Daniel Hawthorne, of course, “assists” nobody, but here he is remarkably well-behaved with both the suspects and the gendarmes. In comforting GAD fashion, Hawthorne unearths each of the secrets that the writers and locals have been carrying with them, and the local Inspector co-opts and takes credit for each bit of Hawthorne’s work. “Horowitz’” outrage over this, coupled with a greater understanding this time around over how to behave around Hawthorne, puts them more on the same side. They actually talk a few things out, and although Hawthorne remains circumspect, both about his deductions and his private life, there are glimmerings of a more positive, open relationship between the pair. At one point, “Horowitz”, who has been summarily ignored throughout the festival due to the public’s interest in Hawthorne, says with simple jealousy, “I think people are more interested in you than they are in me.” I found the response, as Horowitz writes it, moving: “He looked at me in surprise. ‘That’s not true.’” There is a long game being played here by the author regarding who Hawthorne is, what happened to him, and how will this affect his relationship, both professional and personal, with “Horowitz,” and that part of the series is starting to become more and more compelling.
As for the case itself, I didn’t find it quite as cleverly clued as The Sentence Is Death, my favorite so far. Part of the solution seemed pretty obvious to me, and part of it seemed to come out of nowhere. Still, I liked the island setting, how it changed the structure of the investigation to something more like a Christie-closed-circle than a Holmesian investigation. I enjoyed Horowitz’ attention to the long-game; it’s a surefire way to keep this series (that might, with luck, run up to ten books or so!) anything but repetitive. I also appreciate how Hawthorne has softened, just a little bit and mostly toward “Horowitz”. (He can still be downright vitriolic with guilty parties.)
So Hawthorne is developing more of a soul. Now, Mr. Horowitz, Code of the Watson notwithstanding, don’t be shy about endowing your own fictional self with more of a brain . . .