The Sentence Is Death: A Novel (Detective Daniel Hawthorne)
“The Sentence Is Death . . . may just be one of summer’s greatest, guiltiest pleasures . . . Pray for solitary confinement, because you’ll want to read this one straight through and uninterrupted.”
Anthony Horowitz’s official bio claims that he “may have committed more (fictional) murders than any other living author.” Whether or not that’s true is still up for debate, but what cannot be contested is the fact that he is one of our most prolific purveyors of crime fiction.
In addition to his novels, which include Magpie Murders, the Alex Rider series for young adults, and officially sanctioned titles featuring Sherlock Holmes and James Bond, Horowitz is also a television screenwriter; his creations include both Midsomer Murders and Foyle’s War, and he contributed to Poirot as well as the miniseries Collision and Injustice.
Last year, Horowitz followed the blockbuster international success of Magpie Murders with The Word Is Murder—the first book in an ongoing self-referential series featuring disgraced (and perpetually disgruntled) Private Investigator Daniel Hawthorne and . . . wait for it . . . the author Anthony Horowitz. Despite his work as a successful novelist and television writer, Horowitz—the studious sidekick, a la Watson—becomes the begrudging (but secretly beguiled) scribe of Hawthorne’s unorthodox investigations. It’s both a physical and intellectual challenge, given his misinterpretation of crimes and uncanny knack for nearly getting himself killed.
The saga’s second entry, The Sentence Is Death, finds Horowitz on the set of a disastrous shoot for . . . wait for it . . . Foyle’s War, made worse when a very modern taxi interrupts the final take of an otherwise historically accurate scene. Hawthorne’s arrival spells murder, and Horowitz is once again drawn into the ensuing investigation, no matter how (initially) resistant. The victim is celebrated divorce lawyer Richard Pryce, and the circumstances of his untimely death compel Horowitz’s complicity in Hawthorne’s inquiry.
The teetotaler Pryce was inexplicably bludgeoned to death with a ₤3,000 bottle of wine, the numbers 182 scrawled on his study wall in green paint. Equally mystifying are his last known words, which were heard over the phone: “You shouldn’t be here. It’s too late . . .” Stymied, the local authorities—led by aggressively competitive Detective Inspector Cara Grunshaw—are forced to invite Hawthorne (and thereby Horowitz) into the fold, and Horowitz becomes the unenviable man in the middle.
The obvious suspect is Akira Anno, a literary novelist and poet who publicly threatened to bean Pryce with a bottle after he represented her husband, Adrian Lockwood, in their divorce proceedings. Whether or not she followed through on that promise remains to be seen, but she is guilty of branding Horowitz a commercial writer—and that’s no small offense.
Of course, Lockwood is also a suspect, however unlikely; Pryce was principled, and wouldn’t have hesitated to expose his own client’s malfeasance, should he have discovered any. But when a second death occurs that can be linked to a shared past with Pryce, the suspect pool widens. After all, is there any such thing as coincidence?
The case(s) at hand is suitably stymying, but it’s the dynamic between the dichotomous Hawthorne and Horowitz that tethers the novel. While their truce appears tenuous at best, there’s an undeniable chemistry between the two—even if Horowitz suspects Hawthorne (who was fired after an accused pedophile tumbled down a flight of stairs on his watch) of being homophobic. There’s a probable backstory here that has yet to be fully revealed and remains a tantalizing thread.
While some fans of Magpie Murders—which was, arguably, a more literary offering—have been underwhelmed with the author’s subsequent mysteries—which are more commercial—there’s no denying their cleverness. Indeed, the storytelling is both masterful and masterfully meta. And while this latter element lends itself to charges of shameless self-indulgence, Horowitz never feigns restraint. Rather, he fully embraces the over-the-topness—and that’s a large part of the books’ appeal.
The Sentence Is Death, then, may just be one of summer’s grandest, guiltiest pleasures. The questions of who- and whydunit will keep you guessing, but it’s the players themselves—including a congenial-if-bemused Anthony Horowitz—that are ultimately arresting. Pray for solitary confinement, because you’ll want to read this one straight through and uninterrupted.