Diana Cowper, a wealthy widow, walks into a funeral parlour in London, with an agenda: to plan her own funeral. Six hours later, she is found strangled in the parlour of her home. Coincidence? Not. The word here is murder.
Anthony Horowitz's murder mystery sets up the premise without much ado. The opening lines of this mystery find mention again a little later in the book: "Just after eleven o'clock on a bright spring morning, the sort of day when the sunshine is almost white and promises a warmth that it doesn't quite deliver, Diana Cowper crossed the Fulham road and went into a funeral parlour."
This line becomes a metaphor for a device Horowitz uses in the telling of this story: the narrator of the mystery and the author of this book are one and the same. Horowitz blends fiction with non-fiction as he inserts himself into the story as the first-person narrator, a device used my many other authors to varying degrees of effect. (For a truly what-did-I-read experience, pick up Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller.)
Tony Horowitz, the writer in the book, is commissioned by disgraced Scotland Yard detective Daniel Hawthorne to write the story of Mrs Cowper's murder, as the detective works on solving the case. Horowitz finds himself accepting Hawthorne's offer of partnership reluctantly. Wary of working with someone he hasn't liked working with earlier, Horowitz nevertheless is, like every writer, a slave to the unravelling of a good plot.
Hawthorne becomes the surly foil to eager beaver Horowitz, and a testy partnership develops between the two as they attempt to piece the puzzle of Mrs Cowper's death together.
The partnership does give rise to the cliched Holmes-Watson comparison, a trope so widely used in the genre that it doesn't quite surprise the reader to see Horowitz using it here. Hawthorne's reserve is Holmesian, his approach analytical, his thinking five steps ahead of Horowitz, and Horowitz the narrator becomes the garrulous Watsonesque figure who trails behind the detective, trying to upstage Hawthorne with his mental acuity, because he is - after all - a writer.
Compounding this story is Mrs Cowper's maybe-estranged relationship with her movie star son, who lives far away in Hollywood. And she may have made some unwise investments in the business of a friend, a decision driven more by emotional obligation than acumen, and she may have incurred losses. Add to this a backstory where she may have been instrumental in the unintentional maiming of two young children owing to reckless driving in a drunken state. And because the plotting must keep the mystery alive until it's solved, secondary characters crop up at regular intervals who may have had motive to want Diana Cowper dead.
The plotting by itself is great, but the narrative gets a bit jaded with Horowitz's self-referential tics and long digressions where Tony turns his lens onto Anthony Horowitz, writer of many murder mysteries. They are fun, to be honest, because if there's one thing a writer likes more than observing the world around him, it is turning the gaze upon himself. A writerly trope if ever there was one. One scene involves Horowitz's maybe collaboration with Hollywood, and a semi-funny situation where he is in conversation with Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson about a possible big-money-paying gig that goes bust. This scene feels like a misfit in the larger scheme of things, and does nothing to keep the plot moving, but somewhere in the middle, there is another scene involving a funereal atmosphere that gives way to giggles that I felt was masterfully done. As I was waiting for the sombre lowering of Cowper's coffin into the earth, I was beset by giggles by what ensues in the wake (literally) of the scene.
More things happen. Newer possibilities emerge. And Horowitz and Hawthorne find themselves pitting wits against one another frequently. And in the attempt to get to the bottom of things, the boundaries of their partnership are tested several times, and as with every marriage of the minds, they arrive at that sweet spot where they begin to enjoy working with each other. And get to the bottom of things they shall.
Like a good murder mystery should be, the pace is breezy, subplots emerge at all the right places to keep the main plot going until the end, there are a few red herrings thrown in here and there: just what you'd expect. But the foreshadowing left much to be desired. It may be that I have read one too many murder mysteries, because I could tell the ending from a mile away, and the last scene from somewhere around page 30 of the book.
All in all, a good, engaging weekend read. I read it in one sitting.