- - Thursday, July 9, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

A MURDER OF MAGPIES

By Judith Flanders

Minotaur, $24.99, 288 pages

By Muriel Dobbin

Anyone who has tried to write a book will relish this exuberant satire on the publishing business as portrayed by Sam Clair, an editor who has no illusions about her business.

Sam considers editing a serious business when it isn’t comical and never seriously considered anyone in it might be murdered — especially a gossip writer. She describes herself as a “middle aged middlingly successful editor. We will never be stars but instead know dull things like how books are put together.” Such editors, she explains, know how to sweet-talk a recalcitrant designer into doing book jackets “instead of tweeting clips of his cat being adorable.” They are careful about checking facts on jackets, like the time “a squiffy copy writer thought the Count of Monte Cristo was the Count of Monte Carlo.”

And they spend time finding contenders for “the assistant of the week,” those who tend not to last long when they discover their job doesn’t include glamorous lunches with TV presenters. Sam recalls an assistant called Amanda who “looked at me like I murdered kittens” when she was told she must get the right address for the mailing of proofs.

She has some hope for Miranda, her current assistant, despite the young woman’s neo-Goth makeup, which Sam considers a small price to pay for someone who knows that M comes before N and writes that way. Sam’s own job hinges on her efficiency and a bone-dry sense of humor. For light relief there is her mother, who almost steals the plot.

Helena Clair is a svelte and sophisticated lawyer who made partner in her 20s, took three days off when she was 22 to give birth to Sam and never let her forget it. Sam considers the possibility that given her mother’s incredible work schedule she may be two people, one of them a Martian. They live in the same neighborhood but live entirely different lives, and they are fond of each other with limitations.

Helena doesn’t understand Sam’s indifference to fashion, clothes and a life of parties and dinners. But she takes care of her daughter in her fashion, like having no hesitation about a little breaking and entering — done discreetly, of course — to help Sam out in an investigation of why an author is missing and may have washed up in the Thames.

Sam and Helena are both divorced, although Sam has developed what for her passes for interest in a police inspector called Jake. Helena likes him. As she puts it to her daughter, “You could do worse and you have.”

Sharp-tongued repartee forms a major part of the plot and that is probably just as well, since the intricacies of money-laundering may be more clear to Helena and Sam than to the reader. And the violence is minimal if you don’t count Sam being beaten up on her own doorstep and later drugged by a tall thin man who causes her to break into uncontrollable laughter when he is described as a sex maniac. Characteristically, Sam reacts to the beating by buying some cheap green eye makeup to conceal her bruises that could rouse interest around the office.

There is a hilarious moment when Sam discovers that her star author, generally considered unpublishable except she sells, has written a comic masterpiece, which means the jacket has to be redesigned. And, of course, there is the vanishing Kit, a handsome expert on high-level gossip who is believed to have gone a scandal too far and incurred the wrath of the wicked. Her disappearance and the efforts to discern her fate and catch the perpetrators form the anchor of the book. But what will keep a reader’s attention are the atmospherics and the secondary plots that populate the book. The characters are well drawn and quirky besides. Most of the publishing pooh-bahs of Sam’s world are likely candidates for the kind of mayhem that drives the book.

It is true to say that Sam likes her work, and she does get around to romance with Jake the police inspector, but she is unimpressed by book parties that bore her. And she is convinced that the editor of Vogue must be lonely.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.


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