The Shape of The Sentence Is Death (Literacy 2021: Book 5)

Thoughts on the second book in Anthony Horowitz’s self-referential murder mystery series (mild spoilers)

There’s a bit near the climax of Anthony Horowitz’s The Sentence Is Death in which the unlikable detective Hawthorne reminds Horowitz to take an idea from Sherlock Holmes and take a look at “the shape of the crime.”

The shape of this particular mystery is that Horowitz has cast himself as the Dr Watson to a fictional Holmes-like detective named Hawthorne, with real people and events in the author’s life spread throughout a fictional murder mystery. This story is heavy on Holmes references, both because the author’s a fan, and because he’d written an official Holmes mystery, called The House of Silk, which gets referenced in The Sentence is Death.

Reading the first book in the series, The Word is Murder, the effect was bewildering — I was constantly having to step out of the book to see if the people or TV series Horowitz kept referencing were real, or his own invention. But the confusion added a kind of electricity to the book that you don’t get from a standard murder mystery.

It’s turned into a formula that’s become clear across the two books, but it’s a fun one, so that’s not entirely a bad thing. The whole premise feels kind of like an author’s stunt or a dare, like writing a children’s book made up entirely of words from the Beginning Reader’s list; or figuring out a way to make a children’s book about a zoo full of imaginary animals that is still somehow racist. In The Sentence Is Death, however, it’s much easier to tell what’s fact and what’s fiction, making the book feel a little less innovative but also infinitely more readable.

It’s also threatening to fall apart midway through the second book in the series; I don’t think anything breaks, but it’s certainly fraying at the seams. He acknowledges early on that he’s had to change the name of a major character (for reasons that become obvious by the end of the chapter), but then later there’s a clue involving wordplay with the pseudonym, and it doesn’t really make sense. Not a huge complaint, but anything that breaks the feeling of straight-faced fictionalized true-crime novel is a little bit of a disappointment.

My complaints about The Word is Murder still apply here: I don’t think Hawthorne is a likable character, and his abrasiveness isn’t endearing or intriguing. Horowitz sets up more character developments for the detective, which I assume will be addressed in the third book — he mentions that he’s only writing this one because it’s a three-book series, which I think is a brazenly clever piece of self-referential self-promotion — but the character is so uninteresting that I’m still not completely sure whether it’s intentional.

Regardless, Horowitz is even more clearly the self-referential, self-deprecating star of this book than of the last one, which is saying something. The books are really extended humblebrags, with long passages about how it’s not as glamorous as people think, being a semi-famous, wealthy author and television writer in London. It would quickly overwhelm the charm of the book if Horowitz weren’t such an undeniably talented writer. He can promote his television and book projects just to the point of being insufferable, but seems to have an innate sense of exactly when to pull back and either put the attention somewhere else, or to make himself the butt of the joke.

He seems to be having a lot of fun, putting himself in embarrassing positions, having characters be rude or disrespectful to him, showing himself jump to inaccurate conclusions, or making himself repeatedly blunder into danger. He gets to be both the devious mastermind pulling all the strings, as well as the hapless fool the audience can’t help but sympathize with.

It’s far from an airtight mystery, and the boundaries of the formula are already becoming apparent, but I still absolutely recommend it to anyone looking for an entertaining murder mystery. With this series, and the Magpie Murders series, he’s taking fun, readable, traditional murder mysteries and floating a layer of 21st-century metatext on top of it, and I’m 100% here for it.