HAWTHORNE AND ME: THE TRUTH
Tina Hoyman is an Australian journalist and author, best known for her many columns in the Sydney Morning Herald. She was deputy editor for all book coverage from 2007 to 2010 before publishing her acclaimed study of Oodgeroo Noonuccal: The Eagle and the Emu, which won the Pulitzer Prize. She went on to write a series of crime novels including Blood Will Tell, which is currently being turned into a feature film starring Brad Pitt and Nicole Kidman.
The article below has been commissioned by Dymocks Booksellers to mark the Australian publication of A Line to Kill. Tina travelled to the UK earlier this year to meet the author, Anthony Horowitz, at his London home. They discussed the inception of the book and the way in which it subverts the mystery genre.
Unfortunately, due to Covid restrictions, Tina has been unable to return to her home in Australia and now communicates with her husband, Wayne, and her two kids, Ethan and Willow, by Zoom. We’re grateful to her for sending in the piece.
Fiction and Metafiction in A Line to Kill – by Tina Hoyman
The United Kingdom has become a contradiction in terms. I spent a year in Bristol (south-east England) as a nanny back in my teens and I have fond memories of the old place. But nobody is united now in a country that has seen a major downturn in the economy due partly to Covid but also to the decision of the Brits to leave Europe back in 2015.
To me it is no coincidence that this turmoil should exist side-by-side with a boom in mystery writing. When you’re locked down with nowhere to go and a government that by all accounts couldn’t manage a barbie without burning the steaks and blaming the guests, that’s when you want to get under the bed covers with a good whodunnit. Isn’t that the main appeal of the genre? It takes the most violent act known to humankind – the act of murder –and turns it into entertainment, which is to say, it brings them under control.
So it’s hardly a surprise that writers such as Richard Osmond, Ian Rankin, Sophie Hannah and Anthony Horowitz are hitting the bestseller lists – although when I suggest this to Horowitz, he takes a different view.
‘I would say that anything you read will offer you solace in troubled times. It’s part of the pleasure . . . that sense of withdrawal. It’s certainly true that these are difficult times. But at the moment I’m reading P.G. Wodehouse, which takes my mind off the news in a positively delightful way without a single murder or any violence on the page.
‘I do agree, though, that murder writing is unique in some ways. Certainly, I can think of no genre where the reader stands so close, shoulder to shoulder, with the main character – the detective. They have exactly the same aim, which is to discover the truth, and they make the journey together.
‘It’s also true, I think, that the whodunnit offers a particular sort of satisfaction. When you get to the end of the book, all the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed. Everything falls into place. Right now the world is a very confusing place with a fast-moving, 24-hour news agenda, social media, fake news. We suffer from a surfeit of information and it’s often hard to be sure what is really happening. With a whodunnit, you get certainty and there is a real comfort in that.’
We’ve met at the author’s home in Clerkenwell, central London, close to Smithfield meat market which has been there for three hundred years. His office is on the sixth floor of what was once a bacon warehouse. His desk stretches the full length of the room and it is really cluttered, disorganised, covered with pages of scribbled handwriting, doodles and diagrams.
Anthony collects wooden toys – automata, he calls them – and they are all over the house. Turn a handle and they come to life. It is easy to find the handle that will do the same for him. It is his work. He talks with fervour about his favourite authors: Sarah Waters, Kazuo Ishiguro, Dickens and Trollope. He claims to work ten hours a day, writing his first draft with a fountain pen. He has seven of them . . . one for each day of the week, perhaps. There are smudges of ink on his fingers. Idyllic Blue by Caran d’Ache. The bottle is between us as we speak.
‘You are a character in A Line to Kill,’ I say. ‘Can you tell me how this came about?’
‘Well, I’d been thinking for some time about writing a series of murder mysteries. It’s something I’ve been interested in all my life . . . ever since I read Sherlock Holmes at school. I’ve done a lot of crime writing for television, starting with many episodes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, starring David Suchet. And then there was Midsomer Murders and Foyle’s War.
‘But when I began thinking about writing crime novels, I wanted to do something different. I’m not interested in spending a year writing a novel that simply leaves you with the information that the butler did it. There has to be something more. That was my thinking behind Foyle’s War too, by the way. I’m very proud of the mysteries we created . . . the suspects, the clues. But what really excited me were the untold stories of World War Two and I was able to write about them too. The invention of radar. The early development of plastic surgery. Anti-Semitism. The way some major businesses interacted with the Nazis. These all provided episodes.
‘By putting myself into the books, becoming the narrator, I turn the conventional whodunnit on its head. Usually, the author is a god-like figure. He stands on a mountain and he knows everything. Think of Doyle or Christie. But I’m very much in the valley and I’m actually the least clever person in the book. I don’t even have a book unless Hawthorne solves the crime. So I have no control at all.
‘It also allows me to write about writing, to meditate on the nature of crime fiction and to explore the relationship between the writer, the detective and the reader. This is something I’ve always wanted to do . . . ever since I came across William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade and Stephen King’s On Writing. These are two brilliant books about the craft of writing. I wanted to write something like that myself. I even had a title – Ten Million Words – which is how many words I think I’ve written in my career. I did start working on it but I soon gave up. It was too dry and colourless. The Word is Murder, The Sentence is Death and now A Line to Kill allow me to do the same thing but in a way that is much more fun.’
‘How much of A Line to Kill is true?’ I ask. I have been taking notes as he talks. That’s a habit of mine. I never use a recorder as I dislike the sound of my own voice.
‘Well . . .’
‘Does Alderney really have a literary festival?”
‘Did you visit the island?’
‘I was there a few years ago.’
‘And don’t tell me – you met Charles le Mesurier.’
‘No. He wasn’t at home at the time.’
It’s a loaded question because, although I’m not letting on, I’ve actually done quite an amount of legwork on the morning of our meeting.
As far as I can tell, Charles le Mesurier does not exist. There is no company called Spin-the-wheel.com listed on the internet. The murder described in this book was never reported in the local newspapers. It’s possible that the government of Alderney – the State – decided to cover it up so as not to put off the tourists – but there are two more deaths in the book and neither of them ever got a mention either. It’s very likely that Anthony has used false names to protect himself, but I can’t find any writers with any similarity to George Elkin, Elizabeth Lovell or Anne Cleary. There is no book called Flashbang Trouble starring two adorable kids with magical powers.
It looks as if Anthony has made the whole thing up.
Does it even matter what is true and what is not in A Line to Kill? We have all learned to live with that tired trope of the unreliable narrator. Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train. These days we know that if she’s in the title, that girl is not to be trusted. But an unreliable author is something else. In his three mysteries, Horowitz has made a clear contract with the reader. He is inviting us into his life. Here’s his wife, his children, his agent – Hilda Starke. He constantly stresses the reality of what he is describing. So how are we supposed to feel if we discover that he’s lying?
And here’s another thing. He makes his detective, Daniel Hawthorne, crudely homophobic. Fair enough – he’s embarrassed by it and apologises for it. But if it’s actually the case that Hawthorne doesn’t really exist – and I’ve been able to find no trace of him either – who should take ownership for the pretty nasty views that are being expressed?
So let’s go back to that question. ‘How much of A Line to Kill is true?’
Horowitz is evasive. He gets up and makes us both coffee, then searches for chocolate biscuits. He tries to change the subject. To give him his due, he has been friendly and open throughout our conversation, but now he appears uncomfortable. He glances at his cell phone, either looking at the time or hoping it will ring.
‘Is Hawthorne real?’ I ask.
‘Really? Because I walked past River Court on my way here. That’s where you say he lives – but nobody there seems to know him.’
‘He’s very private.’
‘There’s nothing about him on the internet either. If he was really fired for pushing a suspect down a flight of stairs, you’d have thought someone would have mentioned it.’
‘Detective Meadows told me it was hushed up.’ Checking back, this is true. There’s a chapter in the first book, The Word is Murder, where he and Horowitz meet.
‘Can I talk to him?’ I ask.
And now the fat really is in the fire. Look – I enjoyed all three books. I’ve agreed to write this piece for Dymocks because I want to help. I don’t think it’s dignified for one writer to beat up another, and anyway if Dymocks don’t like what I’ve written, there’s no way they’re going to let it appear. What I’m saying is, I don’t want to embarrass anybody. But like it or not (and I know the answer to that one), I get the sense that Horowitz knows he’s been skewered and the game is up. We’re talking fiction with a dollop of metafiction. But reality has just packed up and walked out the building.
Then the doorbell rings.
Horowitz gets up and speaks into a phone beside the door. He’s puzzled. He glances at me as if unable to make up his mind. Then says, ‘Yes – come in’ and presses the button. He comes back to his seat. ‘I was going to say that Hawthorne wouldn’t meet you,’ he explains. ‘He doesn’t really like talking to journalists.’
‘I’m not here as a journalist.’
‘He doesn’t like talking to anyone . . . not about himself. But you’re in luck. He’s outside. He’s coming up now.’
Eventually – we’re on the sixth floor, don’t forget – the door opens and a man comes in. He’s wearing a dark suit, a white shirt and a narrow tie. He has hair that’s been cut very short, somewhere between brown and grey. He has dark brown eyes and a slightly unhealthy face. I’ve lifted all those descriptions from Chapter One of The Word is Murder. This is Hawthorne. It has to be.
‘I’m sorry, Tony, mate,’ he says – though in a tone of voice that suggests he isn’t sorry at all. ‘I didn’t know you had company.’
Horowitz explains who I am and what I’m doing here.
‘Well, in that case, I’ll come back later.’ Hawthorne doesn’t miss a beat. ‘It wasn’t important anyway . . .’
‘Wait a minute!’ I’m on my feet, imposing myself between him and the door. ‘I’d like to ask you some questions.’
He shakes his head. ‘Sorry, darling. Not interested.’
I don’t like being called ‘darling’. I suspect he may have done it quite deliberately.
‘I’m writing an article that may help sell your books in Australia,’ I tell him. ‘Is it true that the two of you are splitting the profits fifty fifty?’
Hawthorne doesn’t answer.
‘It is true,’ Horowitz says. Definitely not happy about it. I look Hawthorne straight in the eye. ‘Then it may be worth your while, persuading me that you are who you say you are,’ I say.
He frowns. ‘Are you for real?’ he asks.
‘What did you say her name was?’ he asks Horowitz.
‘She’s Tina Hoyman. She’s from Sydney.’
‘She hasn’t got an Australian accent.’
‘Definitely not, mate. In fact, I don’t think she’s Australian at all.’
This is getting out of control. ‘What makes you say that?’ I demand.
‘Look at what she’s wearing. Her handbag’s a Burberry. Her shoes are made by Goral. That dress is Marks and Spencer. Even the ballpoint she’s using is a Parker. All British brands.’
‘You can buy British brands in Sydney.’
‘Goral? A small, Sheffield-based family firm? I doubt it. Anyway, you’ve left the price-tag on the ballpoint. £3.35. You don’t even look Australian. It’s the middle of summer out there right now and you don’t have any tan. Are you really a journalist?’
‘You made quite a lot of mistakes,’ Horowitz chips in, and even as the two of them speak I understand their dynamic and know that they have become used to each other, working as a team.
‘What mistakes?’ I stammer.
‘You told me that you’d been in Bristol in south-east England. But anyone who had been there would know that it’s in the south-west. You also said that the Smithfield meat market was three hundred years old. It’s much older than that. And Brexit happened in 2016 – not 2015 like you said.”
‘Have you rung Dymocks?’ Hawthorne asks. ‘Do they know who she is?’
‘I might give them a call,’ Horowitz frowns. ‘I’d be interested to know if that biography of Oodgeroo Noonuccal actually exists. That title is just a line out of one of her poems. And now that I think about it, I’ll tell you something else. The name of your new feature film, Blood Will Tell, is an Agatha Christie novel. It’s the alternative title to Mrs McGinty’s Dead.’
‘Wait a minute . . .’ I begin.
‘I bet you Tina Hoyman isn’t her real name,’ Hawthorne says. ‘It sounds like an anagram. Maybe we should look her up on Google.’
They’re talking about me as if I’m not there.
And I’m not.
I leave. I go back to my hotel. I write this and then I go to bed. I just want to go home, back to my husband and kids. To be honest, I’ve never much liked metafiction. I certainly don’t want to be part of it.
Want to read another short story from Anthony Horowitz? Read on below.
A Line to Kill by Anthony Horowitz is available in store and online now.