The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz

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The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A very clever and inventive mystery, even if you end up kicking yourself multiple times. But what else would you expect?
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: August 2017
Publisher: Century
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781780896847

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An attractive, well-heeled woman enters a classically-minded funeral parlour in London, and makes plans for her own funeral. Within just a few hours, she's had lunch, engaged with business affairs – and been killed in her own home. Could anyone have foreseen the service to have been needed so quickly? That's the initial premise of this thriller, this most intriguing mystery, and if you want to read it – which is something you really should do – with no surprises, you should not read the book's blurb, or even the authorial biography, and perhaps not even the following. Just go in blind, and wait for the surprises – that start, as it happens, with chapter two…

OK, spoiler alert dutifully flagged up. From now on in you're not going to be told anything to ruin the book, but you will know more about it than I did when I opened it. Sometimes less is more, so it's up to you. You've been warned copiously now, so if I were to tell you that there are definite quirks to the whole structure of this book, that are but a few of the things that lift it out of the usual crime book mire, then take it as read that you're reading on because you don't mind learning about them at this stage.

Chapter two proves that the contents of this book are written by Anthony Horowitz. You know the chap, founder of Midsomer Murders, creator of Foyle's War, continuer of the Sherlock Holmes canon, and so on. And he's writing this in the first person, because he himself is a character in the drama. There is a man, Hawthorne, who once was a murder detective with the police but is so no longer, but who has been drafted in as an advisory consultant and investigator on the strange case of the woman with her almost self-fulfilling trip to the funeral parlour. And he's decided that, what with the strangeness of the case, the brilliant mind he bears with him, and with Anthony Horowitz's writing nous, a bestseller can become of it that will benefit both men, on a 50/50 basis. This is the result – the word from the crime author's mouth about how he jointly investigated and solely wrote-up a true crime novel about a real fictional crime.

That could sound completely arch and 'meta', but it isn't. What it does is actually add a layer of veracity to proceedings, not that Horowitz exactly stands out as reading false. But you also get more engagement with the story as a result, added to which there is more humour and more insight into the whole crime fiction genre, courtesy of the creator of some of its best moments reflecting on the rest.

And, of course, even though this is a very contemporary story (which you can't quite tell from the beginning, as there is no sense of its place in time from the antiquated funerary business and its client), you also get a clear classic parallel. A wonderfully astute investigator – sorry, advisory detective or whatever the real term was, that is very likeable but has flaws in his character and gaping holes in our understanding of him? Well, how about making the Watson to his Holmes, not a medical man but already an established author, and see what the relationship turns out to be?

As before with the possible archness, this isn't forced down our throats that it's the reason for the book's being. The reason, as the author declaims, is that he found a murder story, and wrote the core situation having spent a year of mental writing to ensure everyone was linked and every event had a rightful place in the story. Or did he…? No, that's not the sound of me pretending to believe it was factual all along, however much the actor in this drama is clearly based on so many young men of his generation – there's a bit of Ben Barnes, Damian Lewis, and about ten others. No, it was the sound of being a little disappointed that one huge element of the book was too clearly a red herring. It itself contains a mystery, which I was about two pages ahead on throughout its reveal, but I did get a little tired of its presence, meaning this is one of those rare Horowitz stories that is almost ten percent too long. And if we're nitpicking, how can you have keys to a cellar that is never entered? And the letter's discovery and being purloined never rang true.

But in the end, what you have is a perfect amalgamation of the old (a chap involved in witnessing a crime being solved, right there to write up about it) with the new. It's never black and white that it's a current revision of Holmes and Watson, but it's there for you should you so desire. I desired a book that harked back to the distinctive cleverness and traditional traits of the detective story, where a small group of the highly suspicious all defend themselves against one murder charge. And that's certainly what I got here, and the quirk of having the author give the best supporting actor performance really did not feel like it was tagged on to make it a richer or longer book. It just was a clever, droll and routine-busting read, and I have to encourage genre fans – were they to need it – to turn here and have fun.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

I don't know all the ins and outs of crime since Holmes' day, but I do know the author being part of things has not really died out since then – The Judge and His Hangman (Inspector Barlach 1) by Friedrich Durrenmatt and Joel Agee (translator) is proof.

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