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Anthony Horowitz on murder mystery twists

The Murder Mystery Twist with Anthony Horowitz. Fuzzed screenshot from video.

Anthony Horowitz is so eloquent and enthusiastic in this discussion of twists in murder mysteries. At under fifteen minutes, this video clip and is packed with information.

Penguin have summarised some of the key points from the interview in this article on their website, and I’ve jotted down some of my own notes further down, but I think it’s well worth watching the video in full yourself:

The video

The Art of the Murder Mystery Twist with Anthony Horowitz on YouTube

My notes

  • Horowitz was inspired by golden age crime writers, such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, and Josephine Tey.
  • Highlights the twist at the end of the Planet of the Apes (1968), that they had been on Earth the entire time, which makes you reassess everything that came before.
  • Twists are the reversal of expectations, after the writer leads the reader down a certain path, the reader believes this is happening, but then everything is changed, all the rules are different, you have seen things wrong all along.
  • You don’t need twists. There is a danger in trying to be too clever and forcing twists into a book. A twist is the natural result, where the story was always leading, only you didn’t know it.
  • Twists are not the whole book. Though people do like surprises.
  • You can feed clues into the story in the lead up to the twist, the things characters say, the way they behave. The writer’s knowledge is always greater than the reader’s knowledge, so writers can play with the reader, write things to make the reader look one way while pointing in the other.
  • You are always (or at least often) bamboozled when you get to the end of an Agatha Christie novel, but at the same time you always feel you could have guessed. All the information has been presented to the reader, all the clues are in plain sight. You have to play 100% fair with the reader.
  • Horowitz plans everything, puts everything down on paper. By the time he sits down to write he has a map of where he’s going, everything is going to work, though leaves room to surprise himself. ‘If I can’t surprise myself, how can I surprise my reader?‘ Magpie Murders, a very complicated book, he spent ten years planning and two years writing.
  • Every writer is different. ‘There are no rules, do what works best for you.
  • Horowitz goes through old notes where he asked himself questions and built up characters, settings and plots for The Word is Murder, the first Hawthorne mystery.
  • Horowitz doesn’t have a writing process, doesn’t follow a routine. He sums up his writing process in the word ‘absorption’, he’s completely absorbed in what he’s doing. He’s planned, knows his characters, has done plenty of pre-thinking, so by the time he sits down to start writing (by hand, with a fountain pen!), he is able to live inside the book. ‘Don’t stand on the edge of the book looking, as it were, over the edge of the chasm. Live inside the book, looking around you.
  • Go where the story takes you. Horowitz doesn’t write what the characters are saying, he listens to what they are saying.
  • ‘I would advise just self-belief, enjoyment of what you’re doing, and worry about all these other things later.’
  • Dos and don’ts of a whodunit or a murder mystery: there aren’t any. There are some dos: make it entertaining, well-written, make the characters live, etc.
  • What will make the book a success? Never constraint yourself, produce the completely original book.
  • Horowitz loves writing twists, surprising people, the unexpected, taking people down a certain path then showing them the path takes them somewhere completely different or the person guiding them is untrustworthy or the path doesn’t exist at all – something that makes the reader think twice about what they’ve just read.
  • A book is made up on many things, and you can’t rely on a twist to carry the whole book.
  • Start with a simple formula of A+B=C where A is one person, B is another, and C is the reason why A murders B. If that’s original, interesting, surprising, then start asking who A and B are, their worlds, what they’ve come from, how they met, then move onto the bigger world they occupy.
  • Start with an original idea, have complete faith in it. Don’t just think about it or talk about it, go out there and do it.

Or do you prefer your mysteries a little less twisty?

Sometimes I’m in the mood to have the rug pulled out from underneath me, to be challenged and confronted, but sometimes I just want to snuggle up with something a bit lighter and more easy-going…

Murder on Milverton Square is the first of the Milverton Mysteries, my cosy mystery series that features a chaotic cast of local busybodies, delicious baked treats, a demanding and disdainful ginger cat, a very slow-burn romance with a rather appealing policeman, and of course, murder…

Murder on Milverton Square by G B Ralph. Cover image and book blurb.

Addison Harper is abruptly summoned to Milverton at the behest of an abrasive lawyer. He plans to be in and out, back to the city lickety-split. Instead, he finds himself charmed by the small town with its delightful and eccentric residents, not to mention the rather easy-on-the-eye Sergeant Jake Murphy.

Despite the rocky start, Addison admits he’s had a pleasant day out. That is, until returning to find the prickly old lawyer on the floor, and very much dead. Worse, it looks like murder, and Addison’s fingerprints are all over the crime scene.
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