Skip to main content

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

Anthony Horowitz's novels about a reluctant teen spy have been adapted into a TV series for IMDB TV. Horowitz is also the author of Moonflower Murders, a mystery for adults.

20:56
This recent segment plays exclusively on
Why is this?
Due to the contractual nature of the Fresh Air Archive, segments must be at least 6 months old to be considered part of the archive. To listen to segments that aired within the last 6 months, please click the blue off-site button to visit the Fresh Air page on NPR.org.

Other segments from the episode on November 18, 2020

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 18, 2020: Interview with Jon Wiener; Interview with Anthony Horowitz.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Jon Wiener, hopes that President Trump does not watch Aaron Sorkin's new film, "The Trial Of The Chicago 7." Wiener wrote in an article published last month in The Nation that he feared Trump would take away the wrong message and tell his attorney general, William Barr, to do with the leaders of today's protest movements, like Black Lives Matter, what Nixon did to the Chicago Seven and put them on trial for conspiracy to cross state lines and incite riot. Wiener is the author of a book about the Chicago Seven trial that includes a very abridged version of the trial transcript. The book, "Conspiracy In The Streets," was first published in 2006. It was reprinted to coincide with Aaron Sorkin's film, which is now streaming on Netflix.

The Chicago Seven, originally the Chicago Eight, were leaders of the movement against the war in Vietnam. In August of 1968, they organized protests that drew thousands of people from around the country to Chicago to coincide with the Democratic National Convention that was being held there. This was the convention that nominated Hubert Humphrey, who lost to Richard Nixon. The protesters were met with thousands of police, National Guardsmen and soldiers, resulting in battles that were broadcast on national TV, shocking Americans who watched as young people were clubbed and tear gassed.

Eight months later, early in Nixon's presidency, eight leaders of the political and cultural left, including Bobby Seale, a co-founder of the Black Panthers, were charged with conspiracy to incite riot. Seale, who was chained and gagged in the courtroom during part of the trial, was later severed from the trial and was not retried for the Chicago charges. Wiener writes, at the end of the '60s, it seemed that all the conflicts in America were distilled and then acted out in the courtroom of the trial.

Wiener is also the author of the book "Set The Night On Fire," about the protest movements in 1960s LA, and he wrote an earlier book about John Lennon's FBI files.

John Wiener, welcome back to FRESH AIR. The antiwar protests that we're talking about were staged to coincide with the Democratic National Convention. Why were they protesting at the convention site in Chicago?

JON WIENER: Well, the war in Vietnam had been, basically, a war started and escalated by Democratic presidents, especially Lyndon Johnson. Lyndon Johnson had to withdraw from his own reelection campaign, something that has never happened before or since, because there was so much opposition to him from within his own party because there were now half a million troops in Vietnam, and it was clear that America was never going to win this war.

So if you wanted to protest the war, you had to protest against the Democrats. The Republicans really didn't have much to do with it. And that's why the antiwar leaders set out to organize what they hoped would be hundreds of thousands of people protesting. In the end, it was one of the smaller protests of the '60s. But as you said, the violence of the police - the police riot and the police riot on TV - made it a historic event.

GROSS: How did it turn into a riot? What happened?

WIENER: Well, this is - the subject of the trial raised this issue repeatedly. There's, of course, two views of how this happened. The Nixon Justice Department's view was that leaders of the protest movement conspired to sort of trick naive young people into coming to Chicago and then provoked a riot in violation of federal law. The defense argued that, truthfully, they had tried repeatedly to get permits to make this a legal protest, and they were denied first by the city and then by the courts. They couldn't stop people from coming to protest.

And it's pretty clear that the mayor of Chicago, Richard J. Daley, kind of authorized, not formally but informally, the police to attack and beat the demonstrators repeatedly day after day. And indeed, an independent investigation after all these events called it a police riot.

GROSS: And you write that four months before these protests, Mayor Daley issued orders to Chicago police to shoot to kill arsonists and shoot to maim or cripple looters in Black neighborhoods.

WIENER: Yeah. Daley was determined to stop street protests in Chicago by any means necessary, I think you could say. And I think that's one reason why, instead of hundreds of thousands of people coming, only about 15,000 people came to these protests. The antiwar demonstrations before this - I mean, SDS organized the first antiwar March on Washington in the spring of 1965. That had 25,000 people, which was maybe twice as many as came to Chicago three years later. And during the trial in 1969, the Vietnam Moratorium Day in October had hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating all over the place.

So the threats that Daley had issued in the months before this and the denial of the permits really did have a huge effect on reducing the number of people who were willing to show up.

GROSS: Well, if there were 12,000 police, 6,000 soldiers and 5,000 National Guardsmen, that means there were at least as many of them as there were of protesters. Is that right?

WIENER: Yeah. I think that the Army, the regular Army soldiers were never sent into the streets. It was the National Guard and the Chicago police, so I think it was pretty close to 50-50.

GROSS: So the city issued a curfew at 11 o'clock during the nights of the protest. And when the protesters didn't leave, that, I think, is when the police attacked them.

WIENER: Yes. We need to make it clear here there were two very different protests that were organized. One was the kind of traditional protest march that wanted to go to the convention site and to call on the Democrats to end the war. That was the one that was organized by the National Mobilization Committee - the MOBE, we called it - Dave Dellinger, Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden.

And then there was a separate protest. The Yippies organized what they called a Festival of Life in Grant Park to challenge what they called the festival of death at the Democratic National Convention. Their protest was going to be in the park. It was going to involve music, dancing - they also said perhaps public fornication, perhaps nude bathing at the beaches - the Festival of Life of the counterculture. And everyone was encouraged, who wanted to come to that, to camp out in the park. And the police said they couldn't stay overnight in the park, and so that became the flashpoint - you're right - of the police violence.

GROSS: Many of the protesters were injured. I think hundreds were hospitalized.

WIENER: Yeah. Yeah, including Rennie Davis, who was very - got a concussion, covered with blood, hospitalized. It was bad.

GROSS: So you have these two really different groups standing trial together. You have the Yippies, represented by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, and you've got leaders from the National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam, which is represented by, you know, Dave Dellinger and Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis. As you said, there were two separate protests. One was, you know, a march to where the convention was being held, and the other was this, like, Festival of Life in the park. Did the Yippies and the leaders of the mobilization talk to each other and try to coordinate their ends of this protest? Or were these, like, two independent things?

WIENER: You know, they were inevitably thrown together. They applied separately for permits. But once they got to Chicago, the police didn't really distinguish between them. And a lot of the people who came for the march also wanted to camp out in the park. And during the day was the festival with the music and so on. So they sort of blended together. The idea of the prosecution was that there was a conspiracy. Conspiracy is an agreement to break the law. They never conspired together to do this. It was more the circumstances on the ground that made this into one protest.

GROSS: The defendants in the trial come from the cultural left and the political left. And there's a lot of divisions between them in terms of their tactics, their philosophy, their strategy. And you could see that in how they tried to use the trial to make their larger points about the war and about what was going wrong with America. Can you talk about their different strategies at the trial?

WIENER: Yeah. Both groups wanted to use the trial to present the case to the American people that - they wanted to put the government on trial for the war in Vietnam. That they agreed on. How to do that was where they had different ideas. Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin - let's call them Abbie and Jerry - wanted to use ridicule and humor and disruptions to desanctify (ph) the courtroom and delegitimize the judge and undermine the prosecution. And Dave Dellinger was kind of into that, too. He was openly defiant of the judge and the prosecutors.

Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden wanted to have a more sober kind of trial, where they would challenge the factual basis of what the prosecution was saying and insist on talking about the war at every opportunity. In practice, there was a lot of disruption. And in practice, the judge resolutely refused to let them bring up Vietnam. He kept saying Vietnam has nothing to do with this trial. Objection sustained. So we saw both of these in the courtroom. And the trial, of course, lasted almost five months. So there were many opportunities for both strategies to be attempted.

GROSS: How did the political left - how did, like, Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis react to the more prankish approach of the Yippies, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin?

WIENER: Well, Tom, afterwards, he was kind of contemptuous of Abbie and Jerry. He thought they were not good organizers, was his view. He thought they were - you know, they were masters of television. Everybody understood that. They were masters of the media. But they were not interested in organizing hundreds of thousands of people by the usual organizing tactics. They would just put out the word and hope that everybody came. And that was what they were doing in the courtroom, too, performing for this much larger audience of young people. So Rennie and Tom wanted to make - keep the focus on the war in Vietnam. And Abbie and Jerry were very interested in the desanctification (ph) of the courtroom and the American legal system.

GROSS: So let me introduce you here, Jon. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jon Wiener. His book "Conspiracy In The Streets: The Extraordinary Trial Of The Chicago Seven" was first published in 2006. It was reprinted to coincide with Aaron Sorkin's new film about the trial, which is now streaming on Netflix. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CELESTE AND DANIEL PEMBERTON'S "HEAR MY DREAM")

GROSS: This is FRESH Air. Let's get back to my interview with Jon Wiener, whose books include "Conspiracy In The Streets: The Extraordinary Trial of the Chicago Seven." And if you want to see a theatrical film based on the trial, there's one streaming on Netflix that was written by Aaron Sorkin.

So the protests we've been talking about take place in Chicago in 1968, coinciding with the Democratic National Convention because the protesters are demonstrating against the Democrats, who have been leading the war in Vietnam, you know, Democratic presidents. So by the time the trial takes place, Nixon is president. Did Nixon have a role in the Chicago 7 trial?

WIENER: Well, it was part of - Nixon's campaign theme had been law and order and to be the voice of the - what he called the silent majority, by which he referred to white conservatives who were opposed to the Black movement in the streets and the movement - the counterculture, the movement of young people in the streets. So in that sense, the trial is perfect - is part of what Nixon promised he would do if he became president. And it's interesting that - I mean, the demonstrations were, as you have said, they were against Democrats. They were not against Republicans.

But the most fascinating thing about the trial politically was that the Democratic attorney general for Lyndon Johnson had made a decision not to prosecute any of the protests at the Democratic National Convention. He was - name was Ramsey Clark. And he was brought by the defense to testify at the trial to emphasize how much this was a part of a Nixon initiative, and that there would - never would've been a trial if Hubert Humphrey had won the election because the Democrats were not in favor of, you know, repressing the protests that were sweeping America, even with federal law, even though they were the targets of them. So yes, this was a Nixon initiative. He was more or less fulfilling a campaign promise, although he hadn't promised directly to go after the Chicago demonstrators.

GROSS: Judge Julius Hoffman, as you point out in your book, he seemed to represent everything that was unjust and oppressive about the status quo at the time. He was 74 at the time of the trial. He had graduated from law school in 1915, which was very far away from the cultural values of 1968. And he did things that were just, really, remarkable by any standard, including having Bobby Seale, when he was still a defendant in the trial - Bobby Seale was one of the founders of the Black Panthers. Hoffman had him bound and gagged.

And Seale's lawyer had been hospitalized. So Seale didn't have representation. He wanted to represent himself. Hoffman refused to allow him to do that. And when Seale kept protesting, that's when Hoffman had him bound and gagged. How are you allowed to do that in an American courtroom? How was Hoffman allowed to do that? Wasn't there anybody who could say, you don't do that in America, anybody who could stop that kind of thing from happening?

WIENER: You know, I'm - I had never heard of it happening before either. And I'm kind of amazed that the prosecution didn't tell the judge not to do this. I mean, it was a completely horrifying spectacle, threw the courtroom into turmoil for - it went on for four days. Bobby Seale was a fiercely proud and strong person who kept trying to shout through his gag that he demanded his right to represent himself. This was - a lot of this was in front of the jury. I would have thought that the prosecution would've been worried about the jury being, you know, as we say, tainted by this spectacle.

And, of course, eventually, after four days, Bobby Seale was severed. And that was the end of his presence in the courtroom. Although, the defense then brought him back as a defense witness a couple of months later. But, yeah, it never should've happened. It was completely horrible. It was a spectacle to the entire country, in fact, to the entire world. You can be sure that in Europe and in Africa and in South America, people saw the courtroom drawings. There were no photographs or film, or video allowed in the courtroom. But there were courtroom drawings of a Black man gagged in chains in an American courtroom.

GROSS: What was Bobby Seale doing as a defendant in the first place?

WIENER: He really shouldn't have been there. He had not been any part of these demonstrations. The Panthers were not planning to - didn't demonstrate, didn't call on their members to demonstrate at the Chicago National Convention. And, in fact, they called it a great phrase, Custeristic. It was like, you know, being Custer heading into the battle that he was sure to be massacred in. So Bobby Seale was in Chicago for a total of four hours. He gave a speech in Grant Park in the afternoon, which was mostly about the Black Panthers' ten-point program - defund the police and, you know, Black power in Black communities.

But since the Panthers were the most famous Black, radical group in America, Nixon wanted to make them part of what was going to be the biggest show trial of radicals in America, so he was added. And probably, it was part of the prosecution's strategy also to, you know, frighten the jury of middle-class white people with an angry Black man.

GROSS: It didn't work out the way they expected, did it?

WIENER: No, (laughter) partly it was, as you say, it was because of Judge Julius Hoffman did this most unexpected thing. He should've allowed Bobby Seale to have an attorney. I mean, that's kind of basic, you know, American...

GROSS: It's his constitutional right. Like, I don't understand how...

WIENER: It is his (laughter) constitutional right.

GROSS: ...This is allowed to happen. Yeah (laughter).

WIENER: You make a good point. It was his constitutional right. And that's what he kept claiming, asserting. Hoffman, in some way - you know, when you read the transcript now, you just can't believe a judge would ever do this. It's horrifying and, in some ways, it's hilarious. I mean, every time the prosecution says objection, the judge says sustained. Sometimes - and every time the defense says objection, the judge says overruled. He doesn't even let them state their objection. So he's unbelievably biased, which, of course, led to the entire - all the convictions being overturned on appeal.

But in some ways, in retrospect, this played very much into the hands of the defendants who wanted to expose, you know, the injustice of the American legal system and how the courts were in the service of the repressive forces of the Nixon administration. I mean, it could not possibly have been any clearer. And any other judge would have had a very different kind of trial that didn't fulfill everything that the radicals were saying about justice in America.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jon Wiener. His book "Conspiracy In The Streets: The Extraordinary Trial Of The Chicago Seven" has been reprinted to coincide with Aaron Sorkin's film, which is now streaming on Netflix. And that film is called "The Trial Of The Chicago 7." We'll talk more after a break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KILLING FLOOR")

THE ELECTRIC FLAG: (Singing) If I'd have listened to my second mind - yes, if I had listened to my second mind, you know I wouldn't be here now, people, down on the killing floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF RARE EARTH SONG, "HEY BIG BROTHER")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Jon Wiener. His book "Conspiracy In The Streets: The Extraordinary Trial Of The Chicago Seven" was first published in 2006. It's been reprinted to coincide with Aaron Sorkin's film about the trial of the Chicago Seven, which is now streaming on Netflix.

The defendants in the trial were leaders from the political and the cultural left who opposed the war in Vietnam and organized protests in 1968 in Chicago, where the Democratic National Convention was being held. They were met with thousands of police, National Guardsmen and soldiers, leading to battles in which young people were tear gassed and beaten. The defendants were charged with crossing state lines and conspiring to start a riot. The seven were initially eight, but Bobby Seale, a founder of the Black Panthers, was removed from that trial and was never retried on those Chicago charges.

So we've been talking about Judge Julius Hoffman. What are some of the things that he did, some of the other things he did, that were so norm-breaking for a judge?

WIENER: Well, he, some ways - aside from having a Black man chained and gagged in the courtroom, I'd say the second most outrageous thing he did was not allowing the former attorney general, Ramsey Clark, to testify. Ramsey Clark was prepared to testify that the Democratic administration thought there was no basis for a conspiracy trial of these people and that they did not cause a riot. And Hoffman banned the defense from presenting that testimony in the courtroom and from presenting that witness in the courtroom and didn't even allow the jury to know that the former attorney general had been a scheduled witness and was not allowed to appear.

And, of course, the most fundamental thing, which we've mentioned before, was refusing to allow Bobby Seale to have his attorney present and then refusing his repeated demands that he be allowed to represent himself - completely unconstitutional.

GROSS: So while the trial was going on, Fred Hampton, who was a leader of the Chicago Black Panthers and was acting kind of as a liaison between Bobby Seale and the rest of the defense, Fred Hampton was killed by police in a raid on his home. What do we know about what happened in the death of Fred Hampton? And what impact did that have on the trial?

WIENER: Fred Hampton was a very appealing and, some would say, charismatic young guy, one of the most promising and young leaders of the Panthers. Really, everybody liked him a lot. The police said that there was a gun battle and that he was shot while resisting. But the coroner's autopsy determined that he'd been shot twice in the head in his bed, which meant while he was asleep.

This news came in the middle of the trial. It was just a completely horrible thing for all the defendants who knew him, liked him, had been meeting with him. They tried to get the trial to go into recess for a day or two, but Judge Hoffman wouldn't allow that. And it seems like the murder of Fred Hampton by the Chicago police was part of a national campaign coordinated, probably, by the FBI to attack the Panthers everywhere. Two weeks later, the Panther office in LA was attacked. They didn't kill anybody only because the Panthers there had learned from Fred Hampton's killing to barricade and put - sandbag their offices.

GROSS: So how did the Chicago Seven trial end?

WIENER: Well, here, the film is (laughter) a little misleading. The film has a happy ending, with Tom Hayden defying the judge while everybody cheers. That's the way Aaron Sorkin likes his films to end. But in real life, the trial ended with guilty verdicts against five of the seven defendants. Everyone was found innocent on the conspiracy charge but guilty of incitement to riot. They were then sentenced to five years in prison for that crime. And then the judge also gave each one of them long sentences for contempt of court, some as long as four years more for contempt of court.

Now, normally, if you're being - facing more than a six-month sentence for contempt of court, you get a separate jury trial. He denied them a separate jury trial despite repeated protests from the attorneys. And that also was overturned on appeal. But the end of the trial was a very grim and miserable experience for everybody.

GROSS: Did they have to serve any time?

WIENER: They - I believe they served overnight their - the judge also revoked their bail. Now, the only grounds for revoking bail in America is risk of flight. These guys were not going to flee. These guys were full-time professional organizers. Every chance they had, they were on college campuses or at churches giving speeches. Nevertheless, the judge revoked their bail, which was, you know, improper. And they got that reversed, I think, the next day. And then the trial was appealed. And the contempt citations then had a separate trial, and everything was overturned on appeal, and nobody served any more time in jail.

GROSS: What parallels do you see between the Chicago Seven and the protests of today and how the police have handled those protests?

WIENER: Well, today's - the biggest difference is that today's protests have been a hundred times bigger. It wasn't just in one city that people took to the streets and, in many places, were attacked by the police; it was everywhere in America - big cities and little cities. And it wasn't just young people. It wasn't just Black people. It was a very multiethnic, multiracial wave of protests that we had this summer on a scale that we've never seen before in America. So I think what happened this summer is much, much better, much bigger and stronger and smarter than anything that happened in the '60s, including the Chicago convention protests.

One of the most important things is there weren't these kinds of splits in the demonstrations of the past summer. They were very focused and very coherent. And, you know, the '60s left - the SDS split into two factions which kicked each other out. The Black Panthers had a bitter rivalry with Ron Karenga's US organization. We haven't seen anything like that with Black Lives Matter. And, you know, I've thought a lot about why is that, why is today's protest movement so much better than what we had in the '60s?

I think part of it is that Black Lives Matter is an organization that was founded and is led by Black women, and they somehow do not have the same kind of - let's call them macho rivalries and preoccupations that the men of of the '60s new left and the '60s Black Power movement had.

GROSS: John Wiener, thank you so much for talking with us.

WIENER: It was my pleasure.

GROSS: Jon Wiener is the author of the book "Conspiracy In The Streets: The Extraordinary Trial Of The Chicago Seven." It's been reprinted to coincide with the Aaron Sorkin film "The Trial Of The Chicago 7."

After we take a short break, we'll hear from British writer Anthony Horowitz, author of the Alex Rider teenage spy young adult novels, as well as mystery novels for adults. His Alex Rider series has just been adapted into an Amazon TV series. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ADAM PRICE GROUP'S "STORYVILLE")

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."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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)

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

Democracy Is 'Strained' But Not 'Broken,' Former President Obama Tells 'Fresh Air'

In his first interview with Terry Gross, Obama talks about what he misses most about being president and reflects on the turmoil of the Trump White House. Obama's new memoir is 'A Promised Land.'

20:56

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

Anthony Horowitz's novels about a reluctant teen spy have been adapted into a TV series for IMDB TV. Horowitz is also the author of Moonflower Murders, a mystery for adults.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue