Alex Rider: Secret Weapon by Anthony Horowitz

Alex Rider: Secret Weapon
By Anthony Horowitz
Philomel, 2019

Alex Rider: Secret Weapon   By Anthony Horowitz Philomel, Penguin Random House 2019

“Why me?” asks fourteen-year-old Alex Rider in one of the seven stories collected in Anthony Horowitz’s latest YA thriller, and probably any newcomers to the Alex Rider adventures will be asking the same thing. Those adventures started back in 2000 with Stormbreaker, and they’ve continued through ten of those 11 novels (one of the more intriguing entries in the series doesn’t star Alex Rider at all), a 2006 Hollywood movie, and even a couple of video games, and all of them have featured our eponymous hero fighting spies, terrorists, and would-be world-dominators at the behest of his shadowy superiors at MI6’s Special Operations Division.

In those 20 years and 11 novels (all now reissued by Philomel with crackerjack new covers by Larry Rostant), Alex Rider has aged scarcely a day. He’s seen more action and hairsbreadth escapes than most real-world spies see in an entire career, but in the wonderfully fast-paced world Horowitz has created for him, he’s forever a boy in his early teens. And yet he’s been he’s been recruited for top-secret missions by agencies from the US to Australia, and some variation of that same question almost always comes up: “Why me?”

The answer isn’t always clear, particularly since characters in a book can’t exactly come right out and say “Because you’re the star of this YA series, you little twerp.” In “Alex in Afghanistan,” one of the stories in Secret Weapon (three of which have never been published before) he asks this question to the two agents who come to his quiet home in Chelsea looking to send him on a delicate undercover mission to shut down an illicit particle accelerator in the Herat Mountains. Their first answer is “because you’re very good,” but a few pages later their more honest answer seems to be a bit more practical: he’s the only agent they have who’s small enough to squeeze through the impregnable base’s only access tunnel.

But then, the Alex Rider books have always required a rather hefty suspension of disbelief, and they’ve always rewarded it. Horowitz is refreshingly prolific, having written a couple of excellent Sherlock Holmes pastiche novels, two of the only good James Bond pastiche novels, and (so far) two thoroughly enjoyable novels starring his own creation, Detective Daniel Hawthorne (The Word is Murder and The Sentence is Death). All of these books and a great deal of other writing together serves to highlight one of Horowitz’s most uncanny talents, an ability to shift tone completely from one project to another.

That ability saves the Alex Rider novels from the kinds of creaks and groans that would accompany virtually any other sextagenarian attempting to write YA novels featuring a fourteen-year-old boy. True, Alex is a bit dour, but if you’d been drugged, punched, cloned, and karate-chopped even half so often in 20 years, you would be too.

All of the stories in Secret Weapon are taut and well-run affairs, although Horowitz’s long experience as a novelist is perhaps visible in the fact that the book’s two longest stories are also its strongest. Likewise on display in every story is Horowitz’s terrific knack for creating old-fashioned hissable super-villains; there’s one in virtually every one of these stories (the exception being the change-of-pace quirky “Tea with Smithers”), each one thoroughly and somehow believably devoted to pure eee-vil.

And needless to say, our young hero always has a plan and always manages to save the day. Alex Rider: Secret Weapon will keep all but the most stubbornly anti-book teenagers eagerly reading, and it’ll delight die-hard Alex Rider fans for whom any delay between books is too long.

—Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, The Washington Post, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.