Anthony Horowitz: ‘I feel the need to do the unexpected’

Author Anthony Horowitz talks quickly, very quickly. Words scramble from his mouth in a race against an imaginary stopwatch.

Judging by his bibliography, it shouldn’t be a surprise. Ideas clearly come thick and fast to Horowitz and drive his world.

He’s not only prolific, with his works numbering more than 50, but also varied.

He’s written multiple books for children and young adults, including his Alex Rider stories (now being dramatised on Prime Video), alongside adult fiction. And he’s tackled just about every genre.

Also on the CV is writing for cinema and TV, including episodes of Midsomer Murders and Poirot, and he’s the creator of Foyle’s War, Collision, Injustice and New Blood.

This industry has earned Horowitz an OBE but arguably created something of a conundrum – just where to place him on bookshop or library shelves?

“Maybe it’s done me no good in the sense that’s it’s easier to categorise or pigeonhole a writer and know exactly where to find them. You know, for example, exactly what to expect from a Stephen King,” he acknowledges.

“But I don’t choose when ideas come into my head. And I have a lot – all very different. I’ve had an idea for a literary novel for 10 years and it just won’t go away. I’ll probably fall flat on my face.

“All I can do is write the ideas and believe in them and not worry about anything else. I love every aspect of writing. It’s totality. That is all there is. Just me and the page and nothing else.”

For his latest work he’s in the realm of the murder mystery, which he first entered in 2017 with Magpie Murders – a devilishly complicated whodunnit within a whodunnit.

Yes, he’d written crime stories for TV and two Sherlock Holmes books commissioned by the Conan Doyle estate but Magpie Murders was the first murder novel from his own imagination.

It introduced us to editor Susan Ryeland, her obnoxious, best-selling crime writer Alan Conway and his Poirotesque 1950s private detective Atticus Pund.

Most of the novel narrates the latest Conway/Pund mystery, a double murder case set on the well-trodden ground of a sleepy village. But when the story comes to a tantalising unfinished halt, it’s Susan who finds herself investigating a murder – and narrowly swerving her own death.

It was a best-seller and reviews were generally favourable.

Writing in the Guardian, Alison Flood said: “Horowitz peppers his pages with clues and red herrings aplenty… the story takes a while to get going… But once it does, this is a fiendishly plotted crime novel, with a fabulous twist.”

The Washington Times’ Muriel Dobbin wrote: “Mr Horowitz is not a simple writer and this is no simple mystery, but it is most enjoyable to read and its conclusions never disappoint. Perhaps the only problem is trying to keep up with the plot which is like investigating a spider web.”

Horowitz is now revisiting Susan and Co in Moonflower Murders, another riddle-laden murder within a murder adventure. But there’s been a lot of change.

Susan is running a Cretan hotel with her fiancé and, with Conway dead, she believes he and Pund have been banished from her life.

That is until two guests beseech her to help find their daughter and solve a murder at their own Suffolk hotel, believing the answer to both lies in a one of Conway’s early mysteries.

As with Magpie, readers are given the full Pund story within a story about Conway, both encased by the wider narrative, so need their wits about them to keep tabs on who’s who and what’s what.

Adding an extra, semi-metafictional, layer are the multiple nods to real life – restaurants, people and musings on literature and publishing.

It’s an approach to storytelling that Horowitz himself found testing.

“It makes me tired just remembering how difficult it was to write. The fun of it is that it is like a Russian doll,” he says.

“I’ve been doing this [writing] for so long, I do feel the need to experiment, challenge myself to challenge the reader, to do the unexpected to change people’s attitudes… I’m trying to give more than a murder mystery.”

What is familiar is the country village setting for the crimes. Midsomer Murders has this down to a T, following the path forged by the legendary Agatha Christie.

“In a village everybody knows everybody. So if one person has a secret, it is quite likely five other people will know it. Someone is murdered at breakfast everyone knows by elevenses,” Horowitz says of the village’s appeal for story-tellers.

“And villages have an unchanging quality, which is very useful for crime writers, where information takes time to come.”

In between the Susan Ryeland books, Horowitz wrote two other crime novels featuring the private investigator Daniel Hawthorne. Again, he twisted the genre by inserting himself into the first story, The Word is Murder, as the narrator.

But quirky or conventional, crime thrillers remain consistently popular and topped the best-selling category list in 2019, according to the market tracker Nielsen.

A further recent Nielsen survey showed two-thirds of those asked had turned more to these stories during the pandemic.

Horowitz says the genre “brings people together in a very fast and immediate way”.

“Somebody murders somebody else so you know from the beginning the stakes are very high and the emotions are very serious… there’s an immediate attraction.

“And in a funny way, in a world where truth is hard to pin down – fake news, 24-hour news, politicians who are endlessly found to have been economical with the truth – a murder mystery provides you with absolute truth, a satisfying ending.

“They also open a door into people’s lives in a way that no other fiction does. A detective and the reader progress through the book shoulder-to-shoulder, they are united. You don’t stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Mr Darcy or Dumbledore.”

Horowitz’s affiliation to murder mystery started from his first breath as he was brought into the world by the renown gynaecologist Joseph Suchet – father of Poirot star David.

“When I delivered my first Poirot script, I mentioned to David that his father had delivered me. It seemed a neat fit,” he says.

However, Horowitz says he’s not a big reader of Poirot’s creator Christie, describing her writing as “serviceable rather than inspirational”.

“But I’m a huge fan of her plotting and her genius for changing the formula and she never cheats on the reader.”

As for Conan Doyle, well then you’re talking, says Horowitz, who adds the offer to write his own Sherlock books was too good to turn down.

“The Holmes-Watson relationship is so beguiling, how could I resist sitting in the chair in the corner with those two men? Doyle is such a good writer that it was also an opportunity to raise my game, to write better and try to write like him. He’s had a huge impact on my life and career,” he explains.

But, as an avid reader from childhood, Horowitz could say the same about any number of writers, and he reels off a list from Willard Price to Anthony Trollope.

“I knew I wanted to be a writer at the age of 10 when I wrote my first play. I can still visualise my squidgy handwriting. I was unhappy. I was in a horrible school and books were a lifeline,” he says.

“I still see books as a lifeline in a world in which I find myself understanding less, and that becomes evermore the case.

“They are an escape from reality and no matter how unhappy you might be, the moment you engage with a book, everything feels a little better.”

Escaping from reality has a greater appeal if you consider the holes in which Horowitz has found himself with some of his public comments.

“In the last 10 years I’ve noticed that if I’m not thoughtful in what I say, I read things that I wish I hadn’t said. It’s the world we live in.”

As such, his books won’t be focusing on modern issues, he says, adding, “I’m not sure I have much to offer.

“I want to do something positive, to give people pleasure and entertainment in a world in which people are, by and large, quite kind – when they’re not murdering each other.”

Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz is available now.

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