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'Alex Rider' Novelist On The Joys Of Reading (And Writing) Mysteries

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. If you're a fan of the British writer Anthony Horowitz, then November has a lot to offer. His series about teen spy Alex Rider was adapted into a TV series for Amazon and started streaming last week. Also, Horowitz just published a mystery for adults called "Moonflower Murders." Our producer Sam Briger spoke with Horowitz and can fill in the details.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Alex Rider is the reluctant British teen spy and hero of 13 young adult novels written by our guest, Anthony Horowitz. Now Rider is getting a TV makeover as Amazon releases the new "Alex Rider" series this month. The first season is an adaptation of the second Alex Rider book, "Point Blank." In it, Rider is tapped by a subdivision of Britain's spy agency, MI6, to infiltrate a secretive boarding school in the French Alps that markets itself as a finishing school for the troubled children of international billionaires. However, two of those billionaires have recently died, and MI6 thinks the boarding school, Point Blank, is somehow involved.

Anthony Horowitz does not only write for kids; he's also a prolific author of mysteries and suspense novels for adults. His newest, "Moonflower Murders," also comes out this month. Among his books, Horowitz has written two James Bond novels and was the first author to be officially endorsed by the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle to write new mysteries for Sherlock Holmes. And Horowitz has an extensive television writing resume as the creator of the much beloved series "Foyle's War." I spoke to him from his home in London.

Well, Anthony Horowitz, welcome to FRESH AIR.

ANTHONY HOROWITZ: Thank you for having me.

BRIGER: You have Alex Rider, a reluctant spy, and then he's coerced by this agency to do work for them. Why was that an important plot point for you?

HOROWITZ: Well, when I conceived Alex Rider, which was sort of partly inspired by James Bond - I'd gone to the James Bond movies when I was a kid. I'd read the books. I was obviously, you know, very obsessed with that world. And once I thought of the idea of doing a teenage spy, my first instinct was to make him as different from James Bond as possible. So, for example, he would not be a patriot, was my first thought. He's not somebody who's going to fly the flag. Not many young people in this country really are anymore.

But the next thought was that he should be reluctant, that he should be forced into these adventures. And it was almost a casual thought. But if you asked me to name one ingredient in the books that has contributed towards their success, I would say it is just that, that Alex is reluctant, that he is manipulated, that adults lied to him, that he cannot trust even the bosses at MI6, which is the security agency for which he works. That he is utterly on his own, I think, is one of the reasons why these books have resonated.

BRIGER: Is it easy for you to write young characters? Like, do you easily tap into what you remember being a teen was like?

HOROWITZ: It's more difficult now that I'm older because I'm further away from the audience - I mean, a new generation of 13-year-olds, I think in many respects, different to the 13-year-olds of 20 years ago. I mean, that is just the way of life - that kids, their attitudes, their views change. Added to which, when I wrote the Alex Rider book 20 years ago, I had the good fortune to have two young boys, my own sons, in the house, and I could observe them at close quarters. And all the gadgets in the Alex Rider books were things that I found in their bedrooms.

A lot of the research was done by my older son Nick, who would do all the dangerous sports for me. So, you know, from scuba diving to, you know, parasailing - whatever it happened to be. I would send him and, you know, watch him doing it and learn from him. My younger son Cass read all the manuscripts before they were ever published and was a brilliant, ferocious critic. It was a real family enterprise, writing the books. And not having kids now - they're 30 and 28 - makes life a little more difficult.

BRIGER: What were you like as a teen? It sounds like you were a voracious reader.

HOROWITZ: I wasn't a clever teen. It took me a very long time to find myself and to find my talents and to develop. You know, age 12 and 13, I was very uncertain. I was not in particularly good shape. I was a slightly rather overweight, rotund little boy. I wasn't particularly clever. I think the reading bug, for me, began to kick in towards the end of my teens. I mean, 16 is what I'm reading Sherlock Holmes and then 19 and 18 - 17, 18 and 19, I'm beginning even to explore some of the classics, and I'm becoming much more energized in my reading. But I was a late starter and a late developer and only really found my talents, I think, you know, as a writer when I was in my 20s.

BRIGER: So in this season, Alex Rider is enlisted by this secret British spy agency to infiltrate this boarding school that caters to the difficult children of international billionaires. So he goes there, and it's a very creepy place. It's this isolated mansion up in the French Alps. The setting, this boarding school run by sadists, is a terrific and terrifically terrible setting for a kid's spy story. Can you talk about how you came up with that idea?

HOROWITZ: Certainly. I mean, the funny thing is, I was sent through the English private education system, which was brutal, certainly in the early parts for 8 to 13, and peculiar all the way to the age of 18. I mean, for that entire time, for example, there were no girls in my life. It was an all-boys education - corporal punishment, by which I mean beating was allowed and, indeed, one might even say encouraged. And the whole notion of being separated from your parents, from your family and put into a very cold and even a hostile environment from an early age is something, I think, uniquely and peculiarly English at that time.

And it occurred to me that I could write a book about that sort of education because I what did my parents want. They wanted, I thought as a boy, to make me different; that I wasn't good enough as I was. But they wanted to somehow improve me by putting me into this very hostile environment. And that was the inspiration for "Point Blank." A school - it's not actually a school for little kids. It's a finishing school, so it's a sort of a school for troubled teenagers. But all the kids who are sent there are sent there to be changed. And, of course, Dr. Grief is changing them in ways that the parents cannot believe. But the thing about it is - but as fantastical as the idea is, it is based on a truth, which is that when the children come back home and they are different, the parents think, well, the school has succeeded. They don't realize that their children have actually been replaced.

BRIGER: Another thing that teens have a particular anxiety about is being made to conform in a certain way and to lose their personalities, whether they're rebellious or not; that school or society is going to steal your individuality and just spit out another sheep or a gray man.

HOROWITZ: I think that is something that kids do feel. I think it is certainly something that I felt. And for what it's worth, it's what Alex Rider feels. I mean, Alex - his back story is that he has been brought up - his parents are deceased. He is an orphan. He's been brought up by an uncle who has taken him on adventure holidays, who has taught him martial arts, who's suggested that he should speak two or three different languages, who's given him all these skills, turning him, without Alex's knowledge, into a spy. So his whole life has been a similar sort of manipulation to what is happening in the academy of "Point Blank." And the funny thing about that book is it's the second book in the series. But ask any kid on the planet which their favorite Alex Rider book is, and "Point Blank" always seems to come out as No. 1. And I suspect it is for that reason. It is resonating with them, the sense of being forced to conform, to become something that they don't want to be - that has made that book work.

BRIGER: Let's take a short break here. I'm speaking with Anthony Horowitz, creator of the Alex Rider series of teen spy books that's now a series on Amazon. He also has a new mystery for adults called "Moonflower Murders." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, we're speaking with writer Anthony Horowitz. His spy series for teens about his character, Alex Rider, has been adapted into a new TV show for Amazon, and he has a new mystery for adults called "Moonflower Murders."

So, as I said, you'd just come out with this new murder mystery. It's called "Moonflower Murders," and it's the second in a series of mysteries regarding a book editor named Susan Ryeland. And so one of the fun things about these books is it's actually a bargain. The reader gets two mysteries for the price of one book. Can you describe this series for us?

HOROWITZ: It is difficult to explain. When I sort of try to say what's in the books, it does sound very complicated, but it isn't. I mean, it's - let me try. Hold on. The first book, "Magpie Murders," introduces a woman called Susan Ryeland, who was an editor. And Susan Ryeland had worked with a writer called Alan Conway, who wrote murder mysteries. And Susan got involved in a modern murder mystery, the solution to which could be found inside a book written by her writer, Alan Conway, so that's how the whole sort of structure works. And in both books, Susan Ryeland is investigating. In both books, Alan Conway is the author who has written a murder mystery. And in both books, you get two murder mysteries, which sort of cross five decades to work each other out. Does that make sense to you?

BRIGER: (Laughter) Yes, it does. So what? Were you not working hard enough? Did you feel like you were being lazy just writing one mystery at a time? You had to write two.

HOROWITZ: (Laughter) Well, it does take an awful lot of time to get these books to work. I always think when they take much longer to plan and to construct than they do actually to write. But you see; what I was trying to do with these two books was to do something that hadn't really been done before; to look at the whole genre of murder mystery itself and to answer simple questions like, why do we read them? Why is it that a murder in the street will disgust us, but a murder on the page is an entertainment? What is it about a murder mystery story that is so enticing? What is it like to write them? What is it like to edit them? What is it like even to read them?

BRIGER: So what do you think are some of the pleasures of reading mysteries? I mean, do you think it's having to do with that they make sense out of chaos, that justice is generally restored? What do you think people get out of them?

HOROWITZ: Well, I think both of those things are true. During the course of COVID, I noticed that books have - sales have risen, and particularly, murder mysteries seem to have spiked at this terrible time. And I think that one of the joys of a murder mystery - it's the same as doing a crossword, which is that it is absolutely absorbing; that you can fold yourself into it and surrender yourself to the puzzle and to the labyrinth and that the world outside becomes sort of almost insignificant until you arrive at the solution. But at the same time, I think it's one of the very few types of book that provide truth. And that, I think, in this day and age, is particularly important. We live in an age of 24-hour news and fake news, so-called, and where everything is being questioned and where we never quite know what is true and what isn't. I cannot think of a genre of literature that dots the Is and crosses the T quite so completely and with such satisfaction as a murder mystery novel.

At the end of a whodunit, you are going to be told everything. There are going to be no mysteries left. You're going to know everything about everybody. And there is a sense of justice and fulfillment and satisfaction, which is second to none, so I think that's one of the reasons why we like it. It's also interesting, I think, that it's one of the few types of book in which the hero or heroine, which is to say the detective, stands shoulder to shoulder with the reader. You make the same journey as a detective from the beginning, entering the crime scene, to the end, solving it. Along the way, you have the pleasure of listening to them and following them and standing next to them and that sort of close rapport. It's a very enjoyable experience.

BRIGER: And as we're just speaking, London is under a terror threat. I think that speaks to something you were talking about earlier, about the difference between the kind of novels that you write that are entertaining, if somewhat violent, but in a - not in a disturbing way, and the sort of - the problems we face out in the real world these days.

HOROWITZ: Every single Alex Rider story has been inspired by something I read about it in the newspapers. And if you look at the most recent one, "Nightshade," which was published only this year, which is a story vaguely of sort of religious fundamentalism, even though the religion is never named - I mean, it could be any religion. That's the point of the book. That is a very modern problem and issue that we have to deal with.

If I say it's to make the world understandable, that's not what I'm doing. But what I am doing, I think, is I am presenting a world to children that they will recognize and understand. But in a children's book, in a book for young adults, there will be a happy ending. That is something I have said.

But if a writer for young adults has one responsibility, it is to be optimistic, to say this is your world, and no matter how bad it may seem now, you will make it better. And that's, of course, what Alex always does. He's 14. He has no superpowers. He is manipulated. He is on his own. But somehow, he always wins through. He always does the right thing. He does not need a gun. He does not need to kill people. He just needs to win. And that's what he does.

BRIGER: Well, you were commissioned by both the Arthur Conan Doyle and Ian Fleming estates to write for those authors' famous characters - obviously, Sherlock Holmes and James Bond. That seems like a huge honor, especially considering how influential both of those characters were for you when you were growing up.

HOROWITZ: It's a case in point that Arthur Conan Doyle is a much better writer than me. I mean, I'll be the first to admit it. He was a fantastic originator. But he was also more than just a great mystery writer. He was a wonderful gothic romanticist. I mean, he was a wonderful describer. There are very few writers who can, in five or six words, define an entire age. But if you think about London in the sort of 1890s, and I say to you fog, growler, cobblestones, Stradivarius, you know exactly where you are and in what world you are. And that was Doyle's genius, was to create that world.

Bond and Ian Fleming did pretty much the same thing for the Cold War, for Britain from the sort of end '50s through to the sort of beginning-end '60s, that sort of time. And these are remarkable writers. And when I do a Bond novel or a Holmes novel, it really is - what it demands is to raise my game, first of all, to try and work out, why are these guys so good? What is it that they do? And then to try and do the same.

BRIGER: You know, there's this idea of pleasing fans in franchise movies and stuff like that, where there's certain anticipations that fans have about what's going to happen to characters. And there's also, like, people enjoy, let's say, there's a certain - and I don't mean this derisively, but there's a certain formula of expectations in a Sherlock Holmes story. How much are you playing with those aspects or those elements, and how much do you sort of fight against them when you're writing these books?

HOROWITZ: Oh, no, my job is not to fight against them. If I'm invited to write a Sherlock Holmes book or a Bond book, my job is, in my view - and other writers who've done these have not necessarily agreed - my job is to service Doyle and Fleming as if they were still alive. What would they be writing? What is it that they might have written? My job is to be invisible, not to sort of impose myself and say, hey, in this book I'm going to give Bond a vape instead of a cigarette or whatever.

I mean - and incidentally, what the films do is very different. The films are very clever, in the Bond films, because they can adapt to every decade in which, you know, Bond appears. So from, you know, Connery to Moore to Dalton to whatever, you could almost write a sociological history of this country, if not the world, by just looking at the different Bond films and what they're obsessing about and what they're interested in and what characters are doing, smoking, drinking, eating, et cetera.

But in the books - and, you know, I'm not writing many of them. I'm - you know, two James Bond novels and two Sherlock Holmes, maybe one more of either - I don't know, but that'll be it. My job is to be invisible and to be absolutely faithful to what the original author intended.

BRIGER: Well, Anthony Horowitz, thank you so much for being here today.

HOROWITZ: It's been a pleasure talking to you, Sam. Thank you very much.

GROSS: Anthony Horowitz spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Horowitz's Alex Rider teen spy series has been adapted into a TV series that's now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. His new mystery for adults is called "Moonflower Murders."

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GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be our 44th president, Barack Obama. Volume 1 of his memoir has just been published. In the preface, he writes, there have been times, as he's reflected on his presidency and all that's happened since, when he's had to ask himself whether he was too tempered in speaking the truth as he saw it, too cautious in either word or deed. I hope you'll join us.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.