Anthony Horowitz has a murder to solve.
In The Word is Murder, one of the author’s most audacious experiments to date, a brilliant but nettlesome detective by the name of Daniel Hawthorne investigates the unusual death of one Diana Cowper, strangled to death mere hours after visiting an undertaker to plan her own funeral. As to who is Hawthorne’s unwitting (and somewhat unwilling) sidekick on the case? It’s none other than Horowitz himself, summoned by Hawthorne to shadow him and write a book about the investigation.
A devilishly inventive meta-mystery that finds Horowitz dusting off the Holmesian whodunit while fully sating his appetite for literary gamesmanship, The Word is Murder is in many ways the successor to last year’s Magpie Murders, an Agatha Christie-inspired mystery-within-a-mystery that landed him on the New York Times best-seller lists.
But it’s far from Horowitz’s first investigation. The prolific British author published his first book in 1979 and has since found staggering success across multiple mediums. His young-adult Alex Rider novels have sold 19 million copies worldwide, while his Sherlock Holmes novels Moriarty and The House of Silk have both become massive hits. On TV, he’s created Midsomer Murders and Foyle’s War, the latter of which has won BAFTAs. So known is his work that when the Ian Fleming estate sought to commission new official James Bond novels, it turned first to him — his output, 2015’s Trigger Mortis, was roundly acclaimed, so much so that the estate returned to him to pen a follow-up, Forever and a Day, due out stateside in November.
Ahead of the June 5 release of The Word is Murder, EW called Horowitz at his London residence, where he stepped back from working on the book’s planned sequel to talk about writing himself into his latest novel, pulling off the perfect (literary) murder, and returning to the shadow-soaked world of 007 (a journey upon which he expounded while revealing the book’s US cover to EW last week).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In The Word is Murder, your marvelously clever new book, you actually write yourself into the narrative, investigating the central crime alongside your main character. What led you to that idea, and how did you go about ensuring it served the story rather than coming off as self-important?
ANTHONY HOROWITZ: That’s where I started. When I pitched the idea to my editors and my publishers, the first thing we all talked about was, ‘Would it come across as an ego trip?’ And that’s not the idea at all. First of all, the book’s not about me. It’s about Daniel Hawthorne, an ex-detective inspector and now private investigator. He is Sherlock Holmes, and I am merely Watson, the narrator.
The reason I did it was not because I was particularly interested in writing about myself, but because I wanted to do something completely new and different with the whodunit genre. Normally, when a writer writes a whodunit, he knows everything. He’s on top of the hill looking out over the valley; he sees the suspect, the clues, and the solution to the crime. But if you kick yourself off the hill, and put yourself right down in the valley next to the detective, you suddenly can’t see anything… The whole perspective changes, radically. There’s a moment where I say to Hawthorne, “Look, if you don’t solve this murder, I haven’t got a book.” And that summarizes in a way the weird world in which I’ve found myself.
There were two things in my mind while writing The Word is Murder. The first was to write a really good, puzzling whodunit that people wouldn’t be able to guess, and which is like an Agatha Christie, a P.D. James, like any good whodunit that would baffle you and make you smile when you got to the solution. And the second thing is in the title: The Word is Murder. I’ve been writing for a very long time and I was quite keen to write about writing.
Two books that have hugely inspired me in my life — my bibles as a writer — are Stephen King’s On Writing, and William Goldman’s brilliant book, Adventures in the Screen Trade. I’ve always always wanted to write something in that line, to write about the nature of writing. But the problem is, I’m not really smart enough to do a handbook like they did. Inside a whodunit, I can fold in observations about my life as a writer, as a screenwriter, meeting producers and directors, working on different projects, then suddenly finding myself drawn into this bizarre murder mystery, writing about why we read murder mysteries, what about murder fascinates us — these sorts of questions. On the one hand, I hope it’s enjoyable fiction. On the other, I hope it’s also tantalizing metafic.
And that’s sort of the idea of what I’m trying to do with this book, and with the ones following it, because I’m already about 35,000 words into the sequel, Another Word for Murder.
That’s so exciting, that there’s a sequel!
Yes, yes. I’ve been in meetings this morning, and now I’m back here sitting at my desk, working on chapter 12. And it’s going pretty well, I think.
Are you a writer who makes it up as he goes along or more plans out the entire arc of the story?
I tend to structure everything. I’m a great believer in structure. I like my plots not to have holes in them, I like everything to make sense, and I spend an awful amount of time on that. Sometimes I spend longer planning a book than I will writing it. The last big book I wrote, Magpie Murders, which has had a great success in America, I thought about for 15 years before I actually wrote it. It was a book I thought up many, many years ago. With The Word is Murder, it was the same thing. Having had the idea, it was still several months until I even wrote one word of it, because for me the pleasure of a whodunit is in how everything is stitched together in exactly the right way, the clues are in the right place and in front of your eyes, even if you don’t see them. The character motivations work. Whodunits more than any kinds of writing I can think of have a very, very deeply set pattern to them, and you’ve got to get that pattern right, you have to find the shape of it and get the structure right before you can make it work. After that, it’s a case of finding the characters and entertaining situations. In The Word is Murder, I suppose the chapter that most amuses me is in a cemetery, where a funeral goes horribly wrong, and that was fun, but it also has to fit perfectly into the scheme of things, which is the double-murder being committed.
That scene in particular is such a page-turner. I was sitting with the book and couldn’t tear myself away from it, because it’s so fun to read.
Fun to me is the most important thing in a book; it should be a really fun read. And so far the response in both the U.K. and America is that people have enjoyed it. That’s all I ask, really – and that they don’t guess the ending.
What’s quite fun as well is that, because I’m in it, and because so much of it relates to my life — like that it’s set in Clerkenwell, which is where I’m calling you from — and so many other things too, people have been going on Google to try to work out how much of what I’m writing about is true. Who is Damian Cowper, the son of Diana Cowper, the woman murdered in chapter 1? Who is he? Does he exist? Has he really been in all the TV shows I mention?
I’m very interested in crossing the line between fiction and the real world, and bringing the two together in a rather novel way. For me, when you’ve written as many books as I have – and I have written a great many now – the secret is not to keep writing the same thing but to push at the frontier and try to do new things, to find things readers might not have come upon before. And that’s definitely what I believe I’ve done with The Word is Murder.
I can’t even imagine that eureka moment of realizing you could pull off this challenge, conceptualizing yourself on the page.
I see writing as an adventure. If you’ve written for as long as I have, the way you keep yourself fresh and your readers entertained is to keep trying to find new things to do, whether it’s a action scene in a James Bond novel or a completely different take on a whodunit. I could have written 30 Alex Riders novel, I wrote 11 and that was enough. Because at the end of the day, I didn’t want it to become formulaic as such, so I moved on…. There are going to be another 10 in [this] series, or that’s at least the plan, anyway. This a series about a detective who has clearly got issues. In some respects, he has opinions that are for me as a writer difficult for me to accept, so I begin to investigate him to try to find out why he’s come to the thought processes he had. What has made him into this man? The 10-part series, if it is 10 parts, will be an investigation by me into Hawthorne, which if you think about it is what every writer does with their character anyway. But in this case, I’m in the book, so he’s not my character. I’m his sidekick. That’s what’s different and so entertaining. That is the aim: to spend 10 murder mysteries with him. And the next one, Another Word for Murder, I think is really entertaining and will really beguile people. But it’s the beginning of this long journey, which I hope will take me another decade to finish.
Next page: Hawthorne on his James Bond novel and modernizing 007
Switching tracks, you also have a James Bond novel, Forever and a Day, coming out later this year. It’s your second after 2015’s Trigger Mortis. For someone who’s operated in the spy realm as long as you have, it must be a thrill to work with the original super spy.
Well, that’s quite right. James Bond is an iconic figure, probably the most iconic figure in literature all over the world. To be entrusted with his life and adventures is incredible. It’s a challenge because I’m always aware of the very, very strong fanbase, the millions of people who love the books as well as the films — don’t forget they’re two very different worlds — and so it’s a responsibility. But I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t just love the character. If you’re a fan of something — Sherlock Holmes, James Bond — there is nothing greater than to write about them, because it puts you into their world and puts you right at their shoulders. It’s a great experience.
And mirroring Ian Fleming’s style of writing must have been a really particular exercise for you as a writer.
The challenge for me in writing a Bond novel is to try and do everything Fleming did, even though I’m aware he’s a much better writer than me. It’s a question of raising my game to try and write as well as him, but also to follow the sort of structure he gave us, the sort of setpieces, the moments of danger, the action, and also that strange weltschmerz, that tiredness with the world that Bond sometimes has, to get the atmosphere of the books right, as well as to be accurate to the period — the 1950s — while at the same time being careful not to offend modern sensibilities, which have of course changed so much in the last 50-60 years.
That’s such a good point, because these books belong to the time in which they were written, in a way.
That’s absolutely right. There are aspects of the books — Bond’s attitudes to women obviously is one of them, and even his cigarette habits — which don’t quite chime with the 21st century. The job of the writer is to be true to the original but to do it in a way that doesn’t offend people now.
What was the trickiest part of striking that balance, of getting classic Bond but making it more modern too?
It’s just a case of being aware and being sensitive. I think, on the one hand, if I delivered a Bond who had given up smoking and was a vegan — nothing wrong with either of those two things; on the contrary, they describe me — but if I put that into the character, I think I’d be breaking face with Fleming. It’s just not him, anymore than taking Sherlock Holmes’ pipe away from him or giving him a girlfriend would be breaking face with Doyle. It is quite easy to draw up barriers where you say, “Look, this what the original author intended, so this is therefore what I must write,” but at the same time to do it with a certain amount of originality and try and find new things to say and to do.
It seems like you’re wearing both your traditional hat you wear when writing a novel and another one entirely.
You’re exactly right. The difference in writing Bond against The Word Is Murder — which is one of my original books, with original characters, with my original voice and even has me in the book — the difference between writing that and writing Bond or writing Sherlock Holmes is huge. I enjoy both equally but they provide different challenges, and in a way people ask me which is easier and which is more difficult, but there is no easy answer in that.
And having found success in doing both must be a source of satisfaction.
Well, I don’t know if I think of it quite that way. What is success? How do you define success? I’ve been writing for a very long time, I’ve been published for almost 40 years, and I’ve written nearly 50 books, and I’m still going and people are still enjoying my work. But that’s my life. It’s what I set out for in my early 20s. I’ve always been a writer and pretty much nothing else.
Have your goals changed at all since you started out?
I think all I’ve ever wanted to do in my life is tell stories. When I was 10 years old, I was telling stories. And I knew that’s what I wanted to do for my living, and there was never a Plan B for me, because I wasn’t a clever kid, I didn’t have a great pool of talents to draw from. I was a great storyteller I think when I was a boy, and that’s all I’ve done in my life. Alex Rider, The Diamond Brothers, all the other kids’ books I’ve done, and my TV writing for Foyle’s War and Midsomer Murders, and now in these adult novels. I think that’s what motivates me, gets me out of bed in the morning, is just the story, immersing myself in it, and bringing readers or TV viewers on a journey.