Mystery of the Month – The Sentence is Death

“When you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” – Daniel Hawthorne

Anthony Horowitz is one of my favourite crime fiction authors so I was very excited to read The Sentence is Death, the follow-up novel to 2017’s The Word is Murder, which introduced us to ex-policeman turned private investigator, Daniel Hawthorne.

A notable feature of this series of murder mysteries is that the author himself, Anthony Horowitz (or ‘Tony’, as Hawthorne calls him) is a character in the book, narrating the story and playing the Watson to Hawthorne’s Sherlock. The conversational narration and references to what we know to be true of Horowitz’s life (his work as screenwriter on the tv series Foyle’s War, for example) has the reader wondering how much of the story is truly fiction. There’s even a detailed Acknowledgement section at the back, which mentions and thanks both fictional and non-fictional people.

In The Word is Murder, Hawthorne asked Tony to be his biographer – to follow his investigation into the murder of a woman and turn the story into a novel. The Sentence is Death begins with Hawthorne interrupting Tony on the set of Foyle’s War and inviting him to document his investigation of the murder of Richard Pryce, a divorce lawyer who has been battered to death with a wine bottle in his Hampstead home. Tony reluctantly agrees, lamenting how writing about Hawthorne means he can’t begin chapters with a surprising turn of events because he has to “stick to the facts as they happened”, which is one of many ironies in this metafiction, also because the (real) Horowitz has many surprising events in store.

Clues are cleverly placed throughout the story leading to the identity of Pryce’s murder and giving the astute reader the opportunity to solve the mystery. The initial list of suspects include a feminist author who publicly threatened Pryce after losing a divorce battle, her ex-husband and Pryce’s boyfriend. When Hawthorne and Tony uncover a link to a fatal caving accident involving Pryce, the scope of suspects widens to include two widows. Meanwhile, Detective Cara Grunshaw is blackmailing Tony for information on the case, desperate to beat Hawthorne in the race to uncover the murderer.

Running parallel to the murder mystery, and just as interesting, is the relationship between Hawthorne and Tony. Tony tells the reader he struggles with the private and abstruse Hawthorne as a main character, finding him unlikeable and unpleasant (he’s homophobic and prone to casual racism), yet he begins to warm to him, describing the man with the perfectly assembled Airfix kits with “the sense of a child playing at being an adult”.

Horowitz doesn’t shy away from the comparisons to Sherlock and Watson (having penned some Holmes novels himself) as Hawthorne is very much like Holmes, noticing those odd little details that others don’t, while Tony plays the bumbling Watson, thinking he’s got it all figured out, when he’s really been thwarted by Hawthorne’s line of seemingly innocuous questions. The novel also pays homage to a few plot points in Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet.

Horowitz relishes the opportunity to poke fun at himself, at literary devices and at crime fiction tropes. Hawthorne describes Tony as “a bit like a travel writer who doesn’t know quite where he is”, characters confuse Horowitz’s best selling spy-kid Alex Rider series, instead calling it Alec Rider and Eric Rider, and possibly my favourite – the playful use of the pathetic fallacy at the very end of the novel. Very clever!

The Sentence is Death is everything I love about crime fiction – a carefully crafted mystery with a flawless solution, and an interesting cast of suspects each with plausible motives for the crime (and some with a few naughty secrets), as well as a sense of fun, loads of witty moments and some lovely descriptions of London.

‘Tony’ is tied to his three-book deal with Hawthorne, so we can expect a third instalment with a similarly clever title coming soon. I’d also love to see a television adaptation – would Anthony Horowitz play himself playing himself?

The Sentence is Death is published in Australia by Penguin.

Standout Simile: –

There was a few seconds’ delay before people realised what happened. Then the crowd recoiled, forming a pattern like an exploding sun.

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