'The Sentence Is Death' Is A Bracing Addition To Any Beach Bag

Jun 8, 2019
Originally published on June 9, 2019 12:22 am

Anthony Horowitz, well-known for, among other things, his Sherlock Holmes follow-on novels The House of Silk and Moriarty, returns with his second Inspector Hawthorne mystery, The Sentence Is Death (the first was The Word Is Murder; can I be faulted for hoping the next one will be titled A Novel Way to Die?).

Once again the narrator, "Anthony Horowitz," a writer whose CV is exactly analogous to his nonfictional creator's, teams up reluctantly with the somewhat shady Daniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne was fired from Scotland Yard after a pedophile who got off scot free fell down a set of stairs to his death — and Hawthorne happened to be directly behind said pedophile at the time.

Both men have axes to grind with each other, but Horowitz-the-character also has a nib to sharpen: Hawthorne has hired him to write three books, but that doesn't mean he can't add his own marginalia, carping about Hawthorne's homophobia, for example. It's a canny device, allowing Horowitz to remind us of the world's injustice without giving that inequality much room to breathe.

This time around the not-so-dynamic duo sets out to discover who killed moneyed divorce solicitor Richard "Blunt Razor" Pryce, seemingly with a bottle of very expensive wine, a gift from client Adrian Lockwood. The most likely suspect is Lockwood's soon-to-be ex, celebrated literary novelist and poet Akira Anno; splashed on the wall behind Pryce's bashed-in head is the number "182," also the number of Anno's haiku:

You breathe in my ear

Your every word a trial

The sentence is death

Anno, who sports round tinted glasses à la Yoko Ono, is a curious creation, one whose own dubious deeds will be revealed in a curious and, perhaps for literature lovers, quite damning way much later in the book. Her description made me wonder first if Horowitz has a nib to sharpen on real-life Japanese American novelist Ruth Ozeki who, like Anno, is an alumna of Smith College, a devotee of the Shinto religion, and a recipient of "international acclaim and ... rave reviews" for her novels, including the most recent Man Booker-prize-shortlisted A Tale for the Time Being. Horowitz doesn't like Anno one bit, and recounts the sting of their first brief encounter at a literary festival, where her few words to him could have been "spun out of razor wire."

Although Akira Anno soon vanishes from the scene — again, she'll be back — Horowitz has a scribe's labors of Hercules to complete as he zips around London and the Yorkshire Dales with Hawthorne, who always seems to have a trick up his sleeve, a rabbit to pull out of his hat, a strange character in bright-blue eyeglasses only he knows. Pryce's murder is followed by the death of his old university friend Gregory Taylor, an apparent suicide-by-Tube-train; the two men had already witnessed the horrific end of their third musketeer Charles Richardson when all three were spelunking up north. What ties these corpses together (sorry, sorry!) is a motley crew of suspects including Anno, Lockwood, Pryce's husband, Taylor's wife — an all-out Canterbury Tales caravan of types for Hawthorne to snipe about and Horowitz to correct him on as they defy stern warnings from aggressive and grumpy DI Cara Grunshaw.

At times in the second half of the novel it's difficult to distinguish among venues, especially for those who aren't intimately familiar with London, with England, with the geography of Yorkshire. However, Horowitz always provides peeks at places tourists might miss, like the higgledy-piggledy architecture of tony Hampstead's even tonier Fitzroy Park, where houses have names and no numbers. It's also difficult, at times, to distinguish between Horowitz's frustration and Hawthorne's chiding; sometimes the pair seem as irritating as anyone's squabbling parents at the dinner table.

However, there's just enough intrigue about Hawthorne's past and present connections to make a third novel satisfying in concept. Horowitz mimics Golden Age authors (Christie, Allingham, Marsh, Sayers) so well in his books' scope and denouéments that fans of both puzzle and cozy mysteries will savor the balance of clues and cups of tea (OK, more often pints and cocktails, here) that the author seems to have imbibed like mother's milk. The Sentence Is Death should make a bracing, smart addition to your beach bag.

Bethanne Patrick is a freelance writer and critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.

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