The New York Times bestselling author of the brilliantly inventive The Word Is Murder and The Sentence Is Death returns with his third literary whodunit featuring intrepid detectives Hawthorne and Horowitz. When Ex-Detective Inspector Daniel Hawthorne and his sidekick, author Anthony Horowitz, are invited to an exclusive literary festival on Alderney, an idyllic island off the south coast of England, they don’t expect to find themselves in the middle of murder investigation—or to be trapped with a cold-blooded killer in a remote place with a murky, haunted past. Arriving on Alderney, Hawthorne and Horowitz soon meet the festival’s other guests—an eccentric gathering that includes a bestselling children’s author, a French poet, a TV chef turned cookbook author, a blind psychic, and a war historian—along with a group of ornery locals embroiled in an escalating feud over a disruptive power line. When a local grandee is found dead under mysterious circumstances, Hawthorne and Horowitz become embroiled in the case. The island is locked down, no one is allowed on or off, and it soon becomes horribly clear that a murderer lurks in their midst. But who? Both a brilliant satire on the world of books and writers and an immensely enjoyable locked-room mystery, A Line to Kill is a triumph—a riddle of a story full of brilliant misdirection, beautifully set-out clues, and diabolically clever denouements.
Release date: October 19, 2021
Print pages: 384
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A Line to Kill
My publishers, Penguin Random House, have offices on the Vauxhall Bridge Road, the other side of Victoria. It’s an odd part of London. Considering that the River Thames is at the top of the road and Tate Britain is just around the corner, it’s surprisingly shabby and unattractive, full of shops that look as if they should have gone out of business decades ago and blocks of flats with too many windows and no views. The road itself is very straight and unusually wide, with four lanes for the traffic that rushes past like dust in the vacuum tube of a hoover. There are side streets but they don’t seem to go anywhere.
I don’t get invited there all that often. Producing a book is a complicated enough business, I suppose, without the author getting in the way, but actually I look forward to every visit. It takes me about eight months to finish a book and in that time I’m completely alone. It’s one of the paradoxes of being a writer that, physically, there’s not a huge difference between the debut novelist and the international best-seller: they’re each stuck in a room with a laptop, too many Jaffa Cakes and nobody to talk to. I once worked out that I’ve probably written more than ten million words in my lifetime. I’m surrounded by silence but at the same time I’m drowning in words and it hardly ever leaves me, that sense of disconnection.
But everything changes the moment I walk through the swing doors with the famous Penguin logo up above. I’m always amazed how many people work there and how young so many of them seem to be. Like writing, publishing is a vocation as much as a career and I get a sense of a shared enthusiasm that would be hard to find in most other businesses. Everyone in the building, no matter what their level, loves books – which has to be a good start. But what do they all do? It embarrasses me how little I know about the actual process of publishing. What’s the difference between a proofreader and a copy editor, for example, and why can’t one person do both jobs? Where does marketing end and publicity begin?
I suppose it doesn’t matter. This is where it all happens, where a thought that may have begun years ago in the bath or on a walk is finally turned into reality. When people talk about the ‘dream factory’ they usually mean Hollywood, but for me it will always be Vauxhall Bridge Road.
So I was happy to find myself there on a bright June morning, three months before my new novel, The Word Is Murder, was due to be published. I’d been asked to come in by my editor, Graham Lucas, who’d surprised me with a telephone call.
‘Are you busy?’ he had asked. ‘We’d like to talk about publicity.’ As always, he went straight to the point.
Advance proofs of the book had already gone out and apparently they had been well received – not that I’d have heard otherwise. Publishers are brilliant at keeping bad news from authors.
‘What time?’ I asked.
‘Could you manage Tuesday? Eleven o’clock?’ There was a pause and then: ‘We also want to meet Hawthorne.’
‘Oh.’ I should have expected it, but even so I was surprised. ‘Why?’
‘We think he could make a serious difference to the sales. After all, he is the co-author.’
‘No, he’s not. He didn’t write any of it!’
‘It’s his story. We see you as a team.’
‘Actually, we’re not that close.’
‘I think the public will be very interested in him. I mean . . . in the two of you together. Will you talk to him?’
‘Well, I can ask him.’
‘Eleven o’clock.’ Graham hung up.
I was more than a little deflated as I put the phone down. It was true that the book had been Hawthorne’s idea. He was an ex-detective who worked as a consultant to the police, helping them with their more complicated investigations. He’d first approached me to write about him while he was looking into the murder of a wealthy widow in west London, but I’d been reluctant from the start, mainly because I preferred to make up my own stories. Certainly, I had never thought of the book as a collaboration and I wasn’t sure I liked the idea of sharing the stage – any stage – with him.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that this could play to my advantage. I had now followed Hawthorne on two investigations – and ‘follow’ is the right word. Although I was meant to be his biographer, he never actually explained anything of what he was doing and seemed to enjoy keeping me several steps behind him, always in the dark. I had missed every clue that had led him to Diana Cowper’s killer and because of my own stupidity I had almost got killed myself. I had made even more catastrophic errors on our next case, the murder of a divorce lawyer in Hampstead, and I wasn’t entirely sure I could write the second book without making myself look ridiculous.
Well, here was a chance to redress the balance. If Graham Lucas was going to have his way, Hawthorne would have to enter my world: talks, signing sessions, interviews, festivals. It would all be new to him, but I’d been doing it for thirty years. Just for once, I’d have the upper hand.
I had met him that same afternoon. As always, we sat outside a coffee shop so that he could smoke.
‘It’s eleven o’clock next Tuesday,’ I said. ‘It’ll only be half an hour. They just want to meet you and talk about marketing. When the book comes out, you’re going to have to gear yourself up for joint appearances at some of the major festivals.’
He’d looked doubtful. ‘What festivals?’
‘Edinburgh. Cheltenham. Hay-on-Wye. All of them!’ I knew what mattered most to Hawthorne so I spelled it out for him. ‘Look, it’s very simple. The more books we sell, the more money you’ll make. But that means getting out there. Do you realise that there are about a hundred and seventy thousand books published in the UK every year? And crime fiction is the most popular genre of all.’
‘Fiction?’ He scowled at me.
‘It doesn’t matter how they describe the book. We just have to make sure it’s noticed.’
‘You’re the author. You go to the meeting!’
‘Why do you have to be so bloody uncooperative all the time? Do you have any idea how difficult it is writing these books?’
‘Why? I do all the work.’
‘Yes. But it’s a full-time job making you look sympathetic.’
He looked at me with eyes that were suddenly offended. I’d seen it before, that occasional flicker of vulnerability, reminding me that he was human after all. Separated from his wife and son, living alone in an empty flat, making Airfix models in some echo of a doubtless traumatic childhood, Hawthorne wasn’t as tough as he pretended to be, and perhaps the most annoying thing about him was that, no matter how difficult he was, I still found him intriguing. I wanted to know more about him. When I sat down to write, I was as interested in him as in the mysteries he set out to solve.
‘I didn’t mean that,’ I said. ‘I just need you to come to the publishers. It’s really not that much to ask. Promise me that you will.’
‘Half an hour?’
‘All right. I’ll be there.’
But he wasn’t.
I waited for him for ten minutes in the reception area until finally an intern arrived to take me up to a conference room on the fifth floor. I hoped I might find him there but when the door was opened and I was shown into a square, windowless room, there was no sign of him. Instead, four people sat waiting behind a long table with coffee, tea and ‘family favourite’ biscuits on a plate. They looked at me, then past me. They were unable to hide their disappointment.
My editor had been sitting at the head of the table but he got up when he saw me. ‘Where’s Hawthorne?’ His first words.
‘I thought he’d already be here,’ I said. ‘He’s probably on his way.’
‘I assumed you’d come together.’
Of course, he was right. We should have. ‘No,’ I said. ‘We agreed to meet here.’
Graham looked at his watch. It was quarter past eleven. ‘Well, let’s give him a few minutes. Take a seat . . .’
I still wasn’t sure what to make of Graham Lucas, who had only recently joined Penguin Random House as a senior editor. He was about fifty, slim, with a narrow beard that made him look like an academic. He was wearing a blazer and a roll-neck sweater that might have been cashmere and certainly looked expensive. He had a gold band on his fourth finger and as I sat next to him I detected the flowery scent of an aftershave that didn’t really suit him. I think it’s fair to say that we had a close relationship, but only professionally. I had no idea where he lived, what he did in his spare time, if he had children and – more importantly – if those children read my books. When we were together, all he ever talked about was work.
‘Have you started the second book?’ he asked now.
‘Oh yes. It’s going very well,’ I lied. I’d already told my agent, Hilda Starke, that I would probably be late delivering.
She had arrived ahead of me but she hadn’t got up when I came in. She was sitting at the table, puffing on one of those vape devices, which was odd because I could never remember her actually smoking cigarettes. I knew she didn’t want to be here. She seemed agitated, slouching there bare-armed, with her jacket on the back of her seat, sipping coffee. She had left a bright red crescent moon on the side of the cup.
In a moment of weakness and without telling her, I had agreed to split the royalties fifty-fifty with Hawthorne. That was what he had demanded from the start and I’d found myself acquiescing without consulting her first. Hilda was also annoyed because she had failed to persuade Hawthorne to let her represent him. They had spoken once on the telephone but she hadn’t met him yet. So she was stuck with ten per cent of fifty per cent . . . which was a much smaller percentage than she would have liked.
Tamara Moore, sitting opposite her, was Random House’s publicity director: a very intense and formidable woman in her early thirties. There was a laptop open in front of her and her eyes hadn’t left the screen. At the same time, she was holding a fountain pen, twisting it in her slender fingers as if it were a weapon. Briefly, she looked up. ‘How are you, Anthony?’ she asked. Before I had a chance to answer, she introduced me to her assistant. ‘This is Trish. She’s just started.’
‘Hello.’ Trish was about twenty years old and looked tired. She had a wide face with frizzy hair and an easy smile. ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you. I loved High Fidelity.’
‘That’s the next meeting,’ Tamara muttered, quietly.
‘Oh.’ Trish fell silent.
We spent the next ten minutes chatting but it was hard enough to make even the smallest of small talk when all of us were waiting for the door to open and for Hawthorne to appear. Inwardly, I was seething that he had let me down. Finally, Graham turned to me, tight-lipped. ‘Well, there’s not a great deal to talk about without Daniel here, but we might as well get started.’
‘Nobody ever calls him Daniel,’ I said. ‘He’s just Hawthorne.’ This was met with silence. ‘I could try his mobile, if you like,’ I added.
‘I don’t see that there’s any point.’
‘I have a lunch at twelve thirty,’ Hilda said, giving me no support at all.
‘We’ll get you a cab,’ Graham said. ‘Where to?’
Hilda hesitated. ‘Weymouth Street.’
‘I’ll see to it.’ Trish tapped the instructions into her iPad.
Tamara pressed a button on her keypad and an image of the front cover of The Word Is Murder flashed onto a screen. It was a signal for the business to begin.
‘We can at least talk about our strategy for the end of the year,’ Graham said. ‘When can we expect proofs, Tamara?’
‘They’ll be in at the end of the month,’ Tamara replied. ‘We’ll be sending fifty copies to bloggers, reviewers and key customers.’
‘We’re just making approaches . . .’
‘What about festivals?’ I asked. ‘There’s Edinburgh, Harrogate next month, Norwich . . .’ Everyone looked at me blankly so I went on: ‘I enjoy doing festivals. And if you really want people to meet Hawthorne, surely that’s the best way?’
Hilda sniffed and blew out a cloud of steam that instantly disappeared. ‘There’s no point doing festivals until you’ve got the book to sell,’ she said, stating the obvious.
‘And we can’t make any decisions about that until we’ve actually met Hawthorne,’ Graham added, pointedly.
Right then, to my enormous relief, the door opened and the intern came back in, followed by Hawthorne himself. From his blank look and slightly quizzical smile, he seemed to have no idea that he was thirty minutes late. He was wearing his usual combination of black suit, white shirt and narrow tie. I suddenly felt shabby in my sweatshirt and jeans.
‘This is Mr Hawthorne,’ the intern announced. She turned to Graham. ‘Your wife has called twice. She says it’s important.’
‘I can tell her you’re in a meeting,’ Trish said, glancing from Tamara to Graham as if she needed a consensus.
‘No, it’s all right,’ Graham said. ‘Tell her I’ll speak to her later.’ He got to his feet as the intern left. ‘How do you do, Mr Hawthorne. It’s very good to meet you.’
‘The pleasure’s mine.’ Perhaps Hawthorne was sincere. Perhaps he was being sarcastic. It was impossible to tell. The two men shook hands. ‘It’s been a while since I was in this part of town,’ he went on. ‘I once busted a brothel in Causton Street – half a dozen sex workers from Eastern Europe. Just round the corner from the Lithuanian embassy. Maybe that’s where they got their visas . . . not that we ever made a connection.’
‘How fascinating.’ Graham was immediately hooked. ‘It’s extraordinary what can happen right on your doorstep without you even knowing.’
‘Maybe Tony will write about it one day.’
‘That’s me,’ I said. ‘You’re half an hour late.’
Hawthorne looked astonished. ‘You told me half past eleven.’
‘No. I said eleven o’clock.’
‘I’m sorry, Tony, mate. You definitely said half past. I never forget a time or a place.’ He tapped the side of his head for the benefit of everyone in the room. ‘It’s my training.’
‘Well, there’s no need to worry about it,’ Graham said, giving me a sour look. ‘Let me introduce Tamara, who’s the head of publicity, and her assistant, Trish.’
Hawthorne shook hands with both of them, although I noticed that there was something about Tamara that puzzled him. ‘And you must be the amazing Hilda Starke,’ he said, sitting down next to her. ‘It’s great to meet you at last. Tony never stops talking about you.’
Hilda was not easily charmed but right then she was beaming. Hawthorne had this effect on people. I have described him often enough: his slight build, short hair cut to the scalp around the ears, the oddly searching eyes. But perhaps I have never done justice to the way he could dominate a room from the moment he entered it. He had an extraordinary presence that could be saturnine, threatening or magnetic, depending on his mood.
‘Congratulations on the book,’ Hilda said. Just like my editor, she seemed to have forgotten that I was the one who had written it.
‘I haven’t read it yet,’ Hawthorne said.
‘There’s not much point reading a whodunnit when you know the end.’
It was a line that he must have prepared in advance. At any event, they all nodded in agreement.
‘Aren’t you worried about how Tony has portrayed you?’ Graham asked.
‘It doesn’t bother me at all. So long as the book sells.’
Graham turned to me. ‘I hope you’re not going to write about us,’ he said. He made it sound like a joke.
I smiled. ‘Of course not.’
Trish offered Hawthorne coffee, which he accepted, and a biscuit, which he refused. He never ate in front of other people if he could avoid it. For the next five minutes Graham talked about the publishing business, current trends, his hopes for the book. ‘It’s never easy launching a new series,’ he said. ‘But we have a reasonable shot at the best-seller lists. There’s not much else coming out this September. There’s a new Stephen King, and of course Dan Brown will grab the top spot, but we deliberately chose a quiet week. How would you feel about doing some radio?’
The question was directed at Hawthorne, not me.
‘I’m OK with radio,’ Hawthorne said.
‘Have you had any experience of the media?’
Tamara, who didn’t smile often, smiled at that. ‘We’ve approached Front Row and Saturday Live,’ she said, speaking to the room. ‘They’re waiting to read the book, but the fact that Mr Hawthorne actually worked for the police is definitely of interest.’
‘And the fact that he got thrown out?’ I was tempted to ask.
Tamara went back to her laptop. ‘We were just talking about literary festivals,’ she went on. ‘And as a matter of fact, we have had an invitation.’
My ears pricked up at that. The truth is that literary festivals are the best thing in a writer’s life. To start with, they get you out of the house, out of your room. You meet people: readers and writers. You get to visit beautiful cities like Oxford, Cambridge, Cheltenham, Bath. Better still, you might find yourself being whisked abroad – to Sydney, Sri Lanka, Dubai or Berlin. There’s even a literary festival on board Queen Mary 2.
‘So where is it?’ I asked.
‘It’s in Alderney. They’re launching a new festival in August and they’d love to have you both.’
‘Alderney?’ I muttered.
‘It’s a Channel Island,’ Hawthorne told me, unhelpfully.
‘I know where it is. I didn’t know they had a literary festival.’
‘Actually, they have two.’ Tamara tapped a few buttons, projecting the home page onto the main screen. It read: THE ALDERNEY LITERARY TRUST – SUMMER FESTIVAL. SPONSORED BY SPIN-THE-WHEEL.COM.
‘Who are Spin-the-wheel?’ I asked.
‘They’re an online casino.’ She obviously shared none of my misgivings. ‘Alderney is a world centre for online gambling. Spin-the-wheel sponsor a lot of things on the island.’ She brought up another page. ‘They have a historical fiction festival in March and it was so successful that they’ve decided to start another. So far they’ve invited Elizabeth Lovell, Marc Bellamy, George Elkin, Anne Cleary and . . .’ she leaned closer to the screen ‘. . . Maïssa Lamar.’
‘I haven’t heard of any of them,’ I said.
‘Marc Bellamy is on television,’ Graham said.
‘He’s a cook,’ Hilda added. ‘He has a morning show on ITV2.’
‘I’m not sure,’ I began, although I was aware that I was the only person in the room who was being negative. ‘Alderney’s a tiny place, isn’t it? It seems a very long way to go . . .’
‘It’s forty minutes direct from Southampton,’ Hawthorne said.
‘Yes, but—’ I stopped myself. Hawthorne had said that? I looked at him a second time.
‘I’m up for it,’ Hawthorne continued cheerfully as I stared at him in disbelief. ‘I’ve always had it in mind to visit Alderney,’ he went on. ‘It’s an interesting place. Occupied in the war.’
‘But as Hilda just said, we won’t have any books to sell,’ I reminded everyone. ‘So what’s the point?’
‘It could be helpful with pre-orders,’ Graham said. ‘Hilda?’
Hilda looked up from her mobile, which was lying on the table beside her. ‘I can’t see any harm in it. We can look at it as a dry run, a chance for Anthony and Mr Hawthorne to get their act together. And if the whole thing is a complete disaster, there’s nothing lost.’
‘Well, that’s a vote of confidence,’ I said.
‘Then it’s agreed.’ Graham was in a hurry to move on. ‘What else?’
We spent the rest of the meeting talking about Hawthorne. Or rather, Hawthorne talked about himself, focusing mainly on his work. It was interesting how he could say so much and give away so little, something that had infuriated me when I was writing my first book about him. Shortly after twelve, Trish reminded Graham that he had another meeting and told Hilda that her car had arrived to take her to Weymouth Street. Tamara closed her laptop and Hilda drew on her jacket, heading off for her lunch. It was clear to me that all four of them were delighted with Hawthorne. It was smiles all round as they shook hands.
Even the security guard was beaming at him as we exited onto Vauxhall Bridge Road together. I was in a bad mood and didn’t bother to disguise it.
‘What’s the matter, mate?’ Hawthorne took out a cigarette and lit it.
I jerked a thumb back at the office. ‘They were all over you! What was that all about?’
‘They seem like a nice bunch of people.’ Hawthorne contemplated the end of his cigarette. ‘And maybe you should be a bit more charitable. Your agent’s obviously worried about the results of her test.’
‘What test? What are you talking about?’
‘And Graham’s getting a divorce from his wife.’
‘He never said anything about that!’
‘He didn’t need to. He’s having an affair with the publicity director, and that girl, Trish, knows all about it. It can’t be too easy for her. Being a new mother and worried about her job.’
He did this every time we went anywhere new together and I knew he was baiting me. But I refused to play his game.
‘I don’t want to go to Alderney,’ I said. I began to walk back to Pimlico tube station. I didn’t care if he followed me or not.
‘Because the book won’t be out. There’s no point!’
‘I’ll see you there, then.’
The crime rate on Alderney is so low that it doesn’t even have a police force of its own. There is a police station with one sergeant, two constables and two special constables – but all of them have been seconded from the neighbouring island of Guernsey and there isn’t very much for them to do. Recent offences included ‘taking a conveyance without authority’ and speeding. It’s unclear if they were connected.
If you ignore the atrocities committed when the island was occupied during the Second World War, throughout the entire history of the place there hasn’t been a single murder.
That was about to change.
Six weeks later, Hawthorne and I met at Waterloo Station on our way down to Southampton Parkway. It was the second time we had travelled together – the year before, we’d taken the train up to Yorkshire – and he was carrying the same suitcase with no wheels on the bottom that he had probably taken with him to school. He reminded me a little of those children evacuated during the war. He had the same lost quality.
It seemed to me that he was unusually cheerful. By now I knew him a little better, which is to say that although I had learned very little about his past history, I could at least gauge his moods, and I was certain he was keeping something from me. He’d made it clear that he had no interest in literary festivals, but he’d leapt at the chance to go to Alderney. He’d even known how long it would take to fly. He was clearly up to something – but what?
The train left on time and he took out a paperback copy of The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. It’s a fantastic ghost story and I guessed he was reading it for his book club. We weren’t even out of the station before I’d tackled him. I couldn’t wait any longer.
‘All right,’ I said. ‘You’re going to have to explain it to me.’
He looked up.
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