Close to Death by Anthony Horowitz

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Reviewed by Harriet

‘Anyone who has read the four books I have written about my adventures with ex-Detective Inspector Daniel Hawthorne, may be surprised by this one. Where is Hawthorne? Where am I? What’s going on with the third-person narrative?’

Anthony Horowitz is an astonishingly prolific and successful writer: numerous childrens’ novels, the much-loved Alex Rider series for young adults, a couple of Sherlock Holmes novels and three James Bond novels, some standalone adult novels, several successful TV series, screenplays and more. But perhaps the most interesting, for Shiny readers at least, are his two playful metafictional series: the Susan Ryeland series, Magpie Murders and Moonflower Murders, and the Hawthorne and Horowitz series, of which there are now five, including Close to Death, published this month. I reviewed the first one, The Word is Murder, on my blog but surprisingly have not reviewed any of the others anywhere although I’ve read and enjoyed them all.

In this series one of the two main protagonists is ‘Anthony Horowitz’. He shares his author’s life history, has the same wife, the same literary agent, and lives in the same house. But the murder mysteries he gets involved in solving (or attempting to solve, as, like Watson, he’s not very good at it) are wholly fictional. In the first book, he is contacted by Daniel Hawthorne, an ex-Detective Inspector, who wants Anthony to write a book about him. Although initially unwilling, he finally agrees and ends up following Hawthorne around while he attempts to solve his most recent case. The next three books follow the same pattern, with Anthony sometimes ending up in deep trouble and danger – in the previous novel, he was actually the prime suspect. 

In Close to Death, Anthony’s agent is pestering him to write another one in the series to fulfil his contract, but Hawthorne doesn’t have any new cases for him to write about. So in desperation, Anthony asks if he can write about an old case, and the detective reluctantly agrees:

I’ll give you everything you need – but in instalments. You write two or three chapters. I read them. Then we talk about them. If you get anything wrong, I can steer you back on the right track.’

Owing to this situation, the set-up of this novel differs from the other four. In those, Anthony was the narrator throughout, but here we don’t meet him until nearly seventy pages in. The first part, and much of the rest, is written in the third person – taken from Hawthorne’s notes and some audio recordings – with Anthony popping in from time to time. The story, which takes place five years earlier, is set in Riverview Close, an exclusive small gated community in Richmond-on-Thames, an upmarket suburb of London. The inhabitants are exactly the sort of people you’d expect to live there: a doctor, a dentist, a barrister, an international chess champion, two widowed elderly ladies. They’ve lived in harmony for many years, but everything changes when one of the houses is sold to Giles Kenworthy, a hedge-fund manager with a retired air hostess (and serially unfaithful) wife and several unruly children with noisy skateboards. Everything the Kenworthys do seems guaranteed to infuriate their neighbours, and it’s hardly surprising when Giles gets murdered – with a crossbow, no less. As this is a form of locked room (or locked Close) mystery, there’s no doubt that one of the neighbours is responsible, but which one?

Apart from the obvious pleasure of puzzling over who (and how) could have committed this crime – needless to say, all the neighbours have motives – what lifts these novels out of the ordinary is the relationship between Anthony and Hawthorne. The detective is purposely secretive about almost all the aspects of his life, though Anthony has managed to pick up some information over the years. He makes fun of Anthony – who he persists in calling Tony despite being begged not to – and considers his work and his attempts at crime solving totally inadequate: ‘You never know the solution, mate. That’s what makes your writing so special. You don’t have a clue.’ And indeed Anthony does not have a clue. So this is metafiction at its best – or at least one hopes that Horowitz has a few more clues than his fictional alter ego – which he obviously does, as he can construct intriguing and ultimately satisfying murder mysteries. 

If the series is going to continue, as readers will certainly wish, I rather hope next time there’ll be a fresh case for Hawthorne to solve, as I found the structure here, though clever, a bit less satisfying. Nevertheless there’s so much to enjoy – a cast of characters who all have secrets of their own, lots of nods to numerous golden age novels, including Murder on the Orient Express, and an apparently insoluble crime –  so don’t let that put you off. 

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Harriet is a co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny.

Anthony Horowitz, Close to Death (Century, 2024). 978-1529904239, 432pp., hardback.

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