The Sentence is Death: Murder at play as author Anthony Horowitz writes himself into mystery
Crime: The Sentence is Death, Anthony Horowitz, Century, hardback, 400 pages, €25
A divorce lawyer to the rich and famous is found murdered in his Hampstead townhouse. Richard Pryce has been struck on the head with a bottle of Château Lafite worth thousands, with the killer daubing the letters 182 on the wall before leaving. The victim was on the phone at the time. His last words: "You shouldn't be here. It's too late."
For reasons best known to itself, Scotland Yard calls in the services of former Detective Inspector Daniel Hawthorne, who's been dismissed from the force after pushing a paedophile down the stairs to his death. He, for even less explicable reasons, brings in a bestselling author and screenwriter to help him investigate. As you do.
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The trope of a consulting detective and his well-meaning but slightly slow-witted sidekick getting one over on the regular police has been a mainstay of mystery fiction since the days of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. Indeed, references to Conan Doyle's stories make numerous appearances in these pages.
What makes this story different is that the bestselling author brought in on the case happens to be Anthony Horowitz himself. This is his second adventure alongside Hawthorne, following The Word is Murder, though this one can be read without any knowledge of its predecessor. It follows the same pattern. Horowitz tags along with the former DI as they work their way through the suspects in classic Golden Age of Detective Fiction style, assailed by red herrings on all sides. It's a pity there isn't more room in modern crime novels for enthusiastic amateurs in the mould of Miss Marple and Albert Campion. Horowitz rights that wrong.
Whatever else might be said about The Sentence is Death, it's huge fun for that reason alone, as he weaves the fictional (though presented as true) story of this murder investigation alongside his real life as a professional author and jobbing scriptwriter for shows such as Agatha Christie's Poirot and Foyle's War.
Horowitz is probably best known for the Alex Rider series, and he loses no opportunity to mischievously puncture, though in a fond way, the pretensions of the London literary set of which he is a member.
The first suspect is Akira Anno, a Booker Prize shortlisted novelist and poet feted in the media for her feminist politics. The dead lawyer had been handling her divorce from a wealthy property developer, and she'd threatened to hit him with a wine bottle at a restaurant in front of a score of witnesses shortly before the murder.
Horowitz has met her previously, in a yurt at the Edinburgh Festival, where, wearing "Yoko Ono-style tinted sunglasses", she'd blanked him after realising that he only wrote popular fiction. Anno insists she had no quarrel with her divorce settlement, saying: "I can live without money. My currency is invested in the words that I write. I asked only for enough to support my lifestyle, my two houses, my travel and other expenses." The reader can almost hear Horowitz chuckle as he types.
The investigation is complicated when it's revealed that an old friend of Richard Pryce had also died under the wheels of a Tube train hours before. It's all highly implausible, but then crime fiction is, even the most achingly realistic of modern versions with their disdain of the simple pleasures of an old-fashioned mystery.
Horowitz has no such qualms. After all, as he says: "I spend at least half the day on my own and in silence... Even if I'm not having adventures, I can at least imagine them." This tension between reality and fiction is constantly rising to the surface. His agent, here and in real life, even says at one point: "I don't think readers will give a damn about a lawyer. Can't you make him something more interesting, like an actor or a musician?"
"It was an actor who got killed last time," Horowitz reminds her. "And anyway, it doesn't work like that... I'm just writing what happens."
Having spent his life making things up, it's no accident that stories should also be his subject matter, or that so many of the characters should have names that reference other famous writers and books - Hawthorne; Richardson; Spencer; Masefield; Carlyle; Lockwood.
And not just books. The former policeman who now makes a living digging up dirt on divorce claimants not only has the surname Pinkerman, not far from the legendary detective agency Pinkerton, but bears the first name Lofty, an iconic character from the early days of EastEnders - and that, without giving anything away, might itself be a sly nod to the solution of this murder.
Playfulness begets playfulness. A self-confessed lover of crossword puzzles, Anthony Horowitz throws himself into this game with abandon, carrying readers along willingly to the end.
It's hard to know why anyone who loves a good mystery wouldn't thoroughly enjoy the ride.