The Word Is Murder, or, Write What You Know

Anthony Horowitz’s detective story “The Word Is Murder” is a page-turner, in both directions

Cover of The Word Is Murder via Goodreads

I started reading The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz knowing absolutely nothing about it going in, apart from the fact that I loved reading his book Magpie Murders last year.

I honestly can’t tell whether it was the fact I went it cold that gave me the feeling of surprise, delight, and discovery I had when going through the first half of the book. So I’m reluctant to say too much about it, because I don’t know what could be considered a “spoiler.”

So I’ll start with my summation and just say that I recommend it to anyone looking for a well-written, somewhat “old-fashioned” detective story. For fans of Magpie Murders, it’s a no-brainer. That book felt more ambitious with its central conceit — and honestly, I think it’s a little better — but there’s the same appeal for anyone who wants to get lost in a twisting, turning murder mystery told with cleverness and confidence. For fans of the British TV murder mysteries that Horowitz writes when not doing novels, it’s an easy recommendation.

To talk about why it’s so clever, I’ve got to talk about the main conceit of the book, which doesn’t become completely clear until the second chapter. I won’t mention any details of the mystery itself, but that process of gradually making sense of what was happening was fun, and I’d hate to ruin it for anyone.

If Magpie Murders was like Scream and Scream 2, I guess The Word Is Murder is more like a more conventional Adaptation. Or maybe a less introspective 8 1/2. The book is a fictionalized account of writing the book, and it maintains that fiction even into the final acknowledgements.

Horowitz casts himself as the Dr Watson to a brilliant but abrasive (and pointedly homophobic, for some reason) former police detective named Daniel Hawthorne. Or at least, he tries to. Hawthorne proves to be nowhere near as interesting or engaging a character as Sherlock Holmes, and he stonewalls all of Horwitz’s attempts to find out more about him. There’s even a bit of meta-commentary on that at the beginning of the book, as Horowitz insists that they’re called “detective stories” because people want to read about an interesting detective, while Hawthorne insists that reader only care about the mystery.

So much of the book reads like a heavily fictionalized memoir, with Horowitz telling stories about his (real life) work as a writer for television and books — he mentions Foyle’s War, Poirot, his Alex Rider books, and his Sherlock Holmes novel The House of Silk in particular —as it relates to a murder mystery done in the style of those classic detective stories. He never breaks the conceit that he’s writing true crime non-fiction, and it’s filled with so many real-world references, that you start to wonder how much of it is fiction. Wait, is there a Tintin 2 actually in pre-production? Is this actually the name of an actor in the Star Trek movies? Does Charlie Kauffman really have an identical twin brother, and was Susan Orlean really a drug addict and attempted murderer? I found myself hopping out of the book to check IMDB or look up stuff on Wikipedia, to reassure myself what was “real.”

The Word is Murder is a page-turner in the traditional sense — Horowitz is a master of writing chapter breaks that practically force you to keep barreling through — but I just as often found myself turning backwards in the book to see what I’d missed. He rewrites the book’s opening chapter while the book is still in progress, asking us to pay closer attention to the details. And he has a particularly clever gimmick in which he’ll alert us at the end of a chapter that we’d just learned a crucial clue, and we should go back and make sure we noticed it.

Almost all of it is a joy to read. It’s kind of a marvel that it works at all, considering everything that could’ve gone wrong. For a while, I was worried that Horowitz’s frequent mentions of his CV would overwhelm the book. But he seldom makes it seem self-congratulatory, and he seems so eager to knock himself down a peg and make his fictional self seem foolish, that he ends up coming across as an affable and charming surrogate for both the reader and the author.

It was also a risk to center the story around such a cold and unlikeable character as Hawthorne, but it somehow works. I never ended up liking the character at all, but I’m still not sure I’m supposed to. I suspect that the “trick” of the book is Horowitz’s acknowledgement that readers don’t follow Sherlock Holmes stories because of Holmes; he’s ultimately just there to keep the case moving along. Readers are more interested in Watson, who’s not always two steps ahead, but is just there trying to make sense of the case along with them.

I do have a couple of complaints, and they’re related. I don’t quite feel like the case was “fair;” it’s guilty of Murder by Death syndrome, i.e., there’s too much essential information withheld from the reader until the last minute. The book is very good at establishing its red herrings, and I spent the first half certain that I knew the motive at least, until that theory was thoroughly shot down. But there’s essentially a chapter-long monologue towards the end of the book, which feels like not only Horowitz dumping a ton of research on us all at once, but introducing a motive that had never been hinted at earlier. So when, at the end of the book, Hawthorne is checking off all the important clues, I didn’t react with Ah ha! Of course I should’ve noticed that!, but instead I noticed that but had absolutely no context that would make it relevant. That chapter also wrecks the pacing of the book right before the climax, which is my second big complaint.

Still, the book is such a fun mystery story that it’s hard to find fault with it. I get the sense that Horowitz is so technically proficient and understands the genre so completely, that he imposes these layers of meta-fiction on himself to keep it interesting. And like Magpie Murders, these have the unmistakable feel of someone who’s not only good at writing for the genre, but who thoroughly loves the genre.