Books are like doors,” says the novelist and screenwriter Anthony Horowitz. “They have the same proportions as a door, the same mechanism as a door in the sense that they open, and you can travel through that door into other worlds.”
Horowitz knows all about secret doors. He has one in his central London flat, where we meet. It is concealed within a bookcase stacked with Charles Dickens and Sarah Waters, and leads to a hidden room full of magic tricks and other curiosities. It’s exactly what you’d expect of a man who has made his name writing mysteries: the arcane and escapist disguised by the everyday.
Anyone who appreciates a good thriller, however old or young they might be, is likely to have encountered Horowitz’s work. He first found success as a children’s author, with the Alex Rider series (whose eponymous hero is a teenage version of James Bond, reluctantly recruited by MI6 to save the world) now spanning 12 novels, a film, a TV series, and a video game. Adults might be more familiar with the ITV crime dramas he has masterminded: Midsomer Murders and, of course, Foyle’s War, an award-winning detective drama set against the backdrop of the Second World War, which ran from 2002 to 2015.
Over the past decade Horowitz, now 66, has transitioned into writing fiction for adults, with both original novels and contributions to the Sherlock Holmes and James Bond franchises. The playful streak that has enthralled children for 40 years has only grown more mischievous with his adult work. (“I love writing that has a smile to it,” he tells me.) His Susan Ryeland novels (the first of which was published in 2016) delight in the “book within a book” device, following a world-weary editor trying to solve real-life murders with the help of the classic whodunnit novels she works on. (Horowitz shows off his command of the genre by writing each of these fictional, Agatha Christie-style “bestsellers” into the story, hiding within them clues to the overarching mystery.)
His latest project ventures further into the realms of metafiction: the former police detective Daniel Hawthorne investigates crimes with the help of a narrator and hapless sidekick, the writer Anthony Horowitz. Hawthorne and Horowitz have cracked two cases so far, with the third book coming out in August: A Line to Kill, set on the island of Alderney, where the pair attend a literary festival to promote (Inception-style) the previous books in the series.
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“The reason I put myself into the books – and my publisher was a little bit nervous about it when I pitched the idea – was simply because it changes the perspective of the murder mystery,” Horowitz explains. Usually in detective fiction the writer is omniscient while the sidekick character (Dr Watson to Sherlock Holmes, Captain Hastings to Hercule Poirot) represents the reader “who is striving for the truth but is essentially not that bright”, he says.
“What I thought would be fun would be to take the writer and push him into that position. Instead of knowing everything, I’d be the character in the book who knows nothing. And it just completely changed the way the book was written.”
He gestures to the sushi he has laid out on the table for us, that I have been happily eating.
“So for example if I’m writing a murder mystery and you’re about to get killed, I will describe carefully the sushi, so when on page 47 you pick the wrong one and keel over, that’s been seeded in. But if I don’t know anything, if I’m writing this scene and I don’t know when, why or even if you’re going to get killed, how do I know what to describe?” I gently put down my chopsticks.
As well as letting Horowitz play with the conventions of whodunnits, writing himself into his own novels allows the reader to feel that they know the author. We find the character of Horowitz turning up to the set of Foyle’s War, negotiating with his agent, and meeting Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson to discuss a film project that never materialises. (“Did the meeting go that badly?” I ask. “It didn’t go well,” comes the reply.) So how much of it is true?
“Everything in the Hawthorne books is true – everything!” he insists. Except the grisly murders, obviously.
Politically and socially, Horowitz occupies an unusual space. His father, Mark Horowitz, was a wealthy Jewish businessman and a fixer for the Labour prime minister Harold Wilson. Born in 1955, Anthony grew up in luxury along with his two siblings: the family home, White Friars, was a palatial estate in Harrow, north London, complete with extensive grounds and servants. He was sent off to an austere boarding school at the age of eight (a place he despised), then later attended Rugby (where he fared better).
Mark Horowitz died when Anthony was in his early twenties, and it was only then the family realised the extent of his financial troubles. The money had vanished; the family never found out quite what had happened. That fortune has now been somewhat restored – Anthony Horowitz is a global bestselling author, with the Alex Rider series alone selling an estimated 19 million copies. Politics still runs deep in the family; his son Cassian is the Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s PR guru. But the author says he himself is “politically homeless”.
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“I always used to be invited into newspaper columns or television studios as one of the very few vaguely conservative writers who weren’t ashamed to admit that they were conservative,” he says. “In a field where people are generally quite left-leaning I was always perfectly happy to talk about conservative values.” But in the past five or six years, something has changed; Horowitz no longer considers himself a man of the right.
“My shift towards the centre left has been quite peculiar for me, to accept that actually I might have been wrong for 40 years and I needed to revise my thinking,” he says. “I couldn’t now possibly support the Conservative Party, it just makes me feel slightly queasy.”
This change of heart is partly a product of Brexit. Horowitz is calm but nonetheless contemptuous about the UK’s decision to leave the EU. “I was always waiting to be persuaded it was a good idea and I’m still waiting.” He reflects that it is not his own generation but younger people who will suffer the consequences, and says he still hopes to be proved wrong and shown the benefits.
But it’s not just the mechanics of Brexit that have turned Horowitz away from the Conservatives – he is still angry at the way the referendum “drew a divide down this country”. “It set us against each other, it cut us in half,” he says. “A referendum is simply the worst possible way to make judgements about your country, because there are always going to be losers and winners, and the losers are always going to feel aggrieved and the winners are always going to feel that the losers are complaining too much.”
A few minutes later, he sighs. “When your article comes out I won’t be able to look at Twitter for a month because I’ve said I’m unhappy about Europe, so I know the invective that will come my way.”
Horowitz’s disdain for the divisive and dishonest state of British politics – especially the current government – is hard to miss. He speaks of “frank dishonesty”, “ministers blatantly lying in parliament and on television”, and “a caricature playing the Prime Minister” (he notes that Boris Johnson “chooses to be a caricature, so I’m not insulting him”).
As for Labour, “I think Keir Starmer is doing rather a good job, personally. I think he has an almost impossible job to do and I rather feel sorry for him. He’s probably the wrong man in that position right now.” Who would be? “Somebody more telegenic, unfortunately, because we live in a telegenic age of politics.”
Initially, I planned to talk to Horowitz primarily about “national crisis” literature – whether the pandemic could spur a whole new genre of fiction in the same way as the Second World War did. Is the creator of Foyle’s War full of ideas for crime stories set in an era of lockdowns, PPE shortages and the race for a vaccine?
“I’m sure there will be writers who will write marvellous things about it, but not me,” he says. “I just have no interest in it, I’ve hated every minute of it and I’ll be glad when it’s over.” While he is quick to point out how fortunate he has been personally with his work and his living space, his experience of the pandemic has been “very discombobulating and unpleasant: the whole idea of not being able to embrace people, to go to the theatre, to have my whole cultural life turned off like a tap, just the silence and the sense of misery around”.
For someone who can be so cheerful about murder, the despondency with which Horowitz describes the impact Covid-19 is jarring. Lockdown has been bad enough, but even more depressing to him is the uncertainty.
“Can I go on holiday next week?” he asks. “And if I do go can I come back again? What was the cause of Covid? How long is it going to last for? When can I go to the theatre again? What actually did happen with Test and Trace? Is the government responsible for at least 20,000 needless deaths by moving people out of hospitals and into care homes without testing them?
“There is so much obfuscation, so much that is simply unknown,” he says. “Now nobody seems to know any more.”
It’s a bleak sentiment, and for a moment there’s an awkward silence. But then, in the midst of crisis, incredible things can become possible. And when I ask if Horowitz feels hopeful about the future, he lights up again and his despair about the state of Covid politics dissipates.
“The truth of the matter is if you look carefully at the news you’ll find there are things that are happening that are good, and there are people out there who are doing their best. Just the vaccine roll out itself… You have to remember that two Turkish-German immigrants sat down and saved the world. If I put that in an Alex Rider book people wouldn’t believe it. But it happened.”
Here is Horowitz’s trademark optimism in action: sifting through the gloom of real life to find a story that has a happy ending, the horrors of the pandemic neatly resolved by a miracle invention, just as a super-villain’s evil plan can be foiled by a teenaged spy. He says it’s his responsibility as a writer to be hopeful, and to offer answers where none exist. Books should be a source of comfort, a haven from the “24-hour fake news”, an escape into “a world where everything has been solved and where the truth in the final chapter is absolute and total”.
Against a backdrop of Covid uncertainty and lying politicians, that sense of resolution has been in short supply. Figures from January show that during the miserable year that was 2020, Brits bought more than 200 million print books – a 5.2 per cent rise on the previous year. To Horowitz, this makes perfect sense.
“I’ve always thought it’s a paradox of the world we live in that if you want to find truth, you have to go and find it in fiction.”
This article appears in the 14 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Apple vs Facebook