Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Thursday, December 15, 2022

Thursday, December 15, 2022: Maximum Shelf: Murder Your Employer: The McMasters Guide to Homicide

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: Murder Your Employer: The McMasters Guide to Homicide by Rupert Holmes

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: Murder Your Employer: The McMasters Guide to Homicide by Rupert Holmes

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: Murder Your Employer: The McMasters Guide to Homicide by Rupert Holmes

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: Murder Your Employer: The McMasters Guide to Homicide by Rupert Holmes

Murder Your Employer: The McMasters Guide to Homicide

by Rupert Holmes

"Everyone says 'I could just kill so-and-so,' and yet few do anything about it." Perhaps this is because the average person doesn't know how to pull off a homicide or, more importantly, get away with it. That's where Rupert Holmes's cheeky, pun-tastic novel Murder Your Employer: The McMasters Guide to Homicide comes in:

"So you've decided to commit a murder. Congratulations. Simply by purchasing this volume, you've already taken the all-important first step toward a successful homicide of which you can be proud, one that would gain you the admiration of your peers, were they ever to learn of it.

"This book will see to it that they don't."

The guide, "edited" by Holmes, is authored by Harbinger Harrow, dean of Admissions and Confessions at McMasters Conservatory for the Applied Arts. Set in the 1950s, the stories follow the education of three students--Cliff Iverson, Gemma Lindley and someone registered as Dulcie Mown--who all have something in common: a desire to kill their despicable employers.

Cliff's boss at an aircraft manufacturing company values profit over safety, willing to let a plane be constructed with faulty parts, knowing that it could malfunction and plummet from the sky. Gemma's boss has been blackmailing her, threatening to reveal a secret Gemma fears would destroy her mother. And Dulcie is an actress whose career is being throttled by a lecherous and vindictive studio mogul.

They're all brought to McMasters, location unknown. Students are blindfolded and taken on a circuitous journey to the campus, even if they live nearby. Indeed, the school's very existence is a secret. One cannot apply without a recommendation from someone with a clandestine connection to it. The conservatory accepts students of all ages and requires the applicant's intended "deletion" (murder is deemed too vulgar) to meet the "Four Enquiries": 1) the deletion must be deemed "necessary"; 2) the target must have been given "every last chance to redeem themselves"; 3) not cause any innocent persons to suffer; and 4) the deletion must "improve the life of others."

To mold well-rounded deletists, the school offers classes in such subjects as "Dance Craft" ("ballrooms and nightclubs present many unique opportunities for guile while one's target is distracted or intoxicated"), "Weaponry Around You," on how to use ordinary objects as deadly weapons ("an hour was devoted to the spatula alone"), and "Eroticide," because "romance, desire, seduction, and heartbreak are among the most potent arrows in the McMasters quiver." The curriculum also involves students attempting murder on one another, and they graduate when deemed ready to go back into the world and perform their "thesis" ("this being the term for one's graduation deletion"), for which they will be graded. If they receive a failing grade, the result will be their own deletion.

Holmes has pulled off the feat of creating aspiring murderers who are goodhearted and morally decent. There is no question Cliff, Gemma and Dulcie have no other choice but to rid the world of their targets, to protect not only themselves but many others. Their employers are cruel and greedy and selfish, delighting in the suffering of those with less power. It is because the three protagonists value life that they must each end one. They're not antiheroes so much as altruists with a dark bent.

Fans of Holmes's vast body of work--composer, dramatist, author--will likely not be surprised that a story about murder can also be full of zingers and witty wordplay. After a receptionist keeps Dulcie waiting for a rudely long time in an office and then says, "I'm afraid I was buried in thought," Dulcie retorts, "Yes, and I'm sure it was a shallow grave." When cops show up at Cliff's door, after his unsuccessful attempt at murder pre-McMasters, Cliff observes one is sporting a cheap tie that "looked like an obligatory birthday gift from an unloving wife." And Cliff declares that before contemplating murder, "The only law I'd ever knowingly broken was white wine with steak."

Despite training students in all things death-related, the school has a wondrous campus that rivals Hogwarts. Illustrations and maps created by Anna Luizos help readers visualize a landscape that includes a great hall, a stately manor, a playing field, a ravine and a forest. The cuisine has a three-star (but unpublished) Michelin rating. One can get lost in this immersive world, which begs for a screen adaption.

Humor, lush surroundings and sympathetic characters wouldn't be enough if Murder did not also have clever plotting. Cliff, Gemma and Dulcie must surmount incredible odds to kill their employers, and each devises an intricately complex plan that would challenge even a great detective like the author's namesake, Sherlock Holmes. Even though only two of the leads will succeed, the ending stays true to who they are--people whose heart and humanity can't be extinguished. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis

Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster, $28, hardcover, 400p., 9781451648218, February 21, 2023

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: Murder Your Employer: The McMasters Guide to Homicide by Rupert Holmes

Rupert Holmes: From "The Piña Colada Song" to Homicide

(photo: Susan Woog Wagner)

Rupert Holmes has almost too many job titles and accomplishments to fit in a paragraph. The mystery novelist-playwright-composer-arranger-screenwriter-conductor-singer-songwriter ("The Piña Colada Song" and so many more) has won Tony and Edgar awards for his plays The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Accomplice, and been nominated for numerous others for his vast body of work across stage, screen and music worlds. His first mystery novel, Where the Truth Lies, was adapted as a film starring Kevin Bacon and Colin Firth. His third, with the self-explanatory title Murder Your Employer: The McMasters Guide to Homicide, will be published by Avid Reader Press on February 21, 2023.

The idea for this novel was partly inspired by you being in a bookstore and seeing guides like the Dummies series on how to do practically everything. But the McMasters guide is not for dummies at all. How intelligent does one need to be in order to use it effectively? Let's say 1 is as smart as a stick and 10 is closer to Stephen Hawking.

Many despicable criminals test at an I.Q. level of genius. We know this because they are tested in prison, where most will spend the rest of their days until either the state, the passing years or a fellow inmate ends their lives. The reason they were in prison is because they were apprehended. So much for "genius," wouldn't you say?

At McMasters, I'd say it matters little whether your intelligence is ranked as a 7, 8 or 9. What counts is that your target's chances are zero. Generally speaking, the conservatory has found that down-to-earth people who appreciate all that life (and death) has to offer, and who possess common sense and an openness to new ideas, are best prepared to carpe diem faucibus... which we jovially translate as "seize the day, and their neck while you're at it."

Were there challenges in centering a novel around aspiring murderers and portraying them as likable and witty?

Yes, it was a difficult but exhilarating assignment. Could I make my protagonists, all hell-bent on homicide, the kind of people my reader could root for and whose company throughout the perilous, twist-filled adventure could also be pleasurable and wryly amusing? It definitely helped that all three are decent human beings who've been placed in impossible circumstances by loathsome "superiors" (their employers). And I was able to further exonerate them via the crucial Four Enquiries of any McMasters deletion. For it's a McMasters truism that when the behavior of another person leaves you no choice but to kill them, their death is simply involuntary suicide.

The location of the campus isn't revealed but was it inspired by a real place? It's so detailed.

I spent years fashioning the McMasters campus both in my mind and in sketches, resulting in the detailed map so artfully created by Anna Louizos for the endpapers and her illustrations inside. But the extensive grounds of McMasters were also inspired by my freshman year on the venerable campus of Syracuse University, particularly the imposing, neo-gothic Crouse College of Music where I studied. The first time I beheld this towering fortress, my instant thought was I want to learn composition at Castle Frankenstein!

Like McMasters, the university's stately quadrangle is also bordered by imposing edifices as if hotels on a Monopoly board. My vision for McMasters was further illuminated by the hours I spent roaming idyllic UC Berkeley while researching my 1940 period mystery Swing. The McMasters manor house, Slippery Elms, is a fusion of British stately homes and hotels I've known and loved. I also drew upon many sunny afternoons spent in the whimsical faux village of Portmeirion, a sanctuary for diverse and fanciful architectural follies brought to northern Wales by Clough Ellis-Williams.

Which classes at the conservatory would you excel in?

I'd make a very poor murderer, being cursed with always being able to see the other person's side of the story. Perhaps I might have succeeded playing a reed instrument in the McMasters pep band; my music instructor once said I'd forever murdered the Mozart Clarinet Concerto.

The guide claims there are many McMasters graduates among all classes of society. Which historical figures, fictional or real, would you suspect of having attended the conservatory?

The first pages of the novel list a rich range of historic homicidalists who evaded both suspicion and the law, including Mrs. Bess Weiss (better known as Bess Houdini), Colonel Harland David Sanders, and a surprising number of television evangelists, praise the Lord. It can also now be revealed that Aristotle Onassis and his mistress, renowned opera diva Maria Callas, both attended the conservatory, each with the intent of deleting the other.

The campus has a saying: "Wherever a murder goes unsolved, there goes a McMasters graduate." What would happen if a great detective like Sherlock Holmes were brought in to investigate a McMasters grad's deletion? Who would prevail?

Had the Master Sleuth and a McMasters youth ever gone toe to toe, the game would certainly have been a foot (or six feet under). But in Murder Your Employer, Professor Matías Graves, chair of literature at McMasters, points out that Holmes was not above letting a murderer go free, saying, "There are certain crimes which justify private revenge!" But should the Great Detective have inquired at what school the student had acquired their expertise, my hope is the McMasters graduate, sworn to secrecy, would deceptively reply, "Uh... elementary, my dear Holmes."

McMasters teaches students how to delete people by using common, everyday items. Are there ways to murder someone with, say, a piña colada?

As the writer-vocalist of the only Billboard number 1 cocktail-titled hit (keep in mind--Jimmy Buffett's "Margaritaville" tapped out at number 8), McMasters expects me to stay up-to-speed on all pineapple-related murder methods, from ground glass in the blender to a poison-tipped cocktail parasol.

The traditional but artless method is to replace the coconut milk in any piña colada recipe with automobile coolant, which is very sweet to the taste. I find it more elegant to serve an absolutely harmless piña colada in a Tiki mug carved from the manchineel tree, whose bark, wood, leaves and fruit ("Apples of Death") are all marvelously toxic. Its sap did in Ponce de Leon, who had otherwise been enjoying his Florida "escape."

If this novel had been written as a song, what genre would it be in and what would the chorus be?

The most appropriate genre would be a Requiem Mass whose chorus would be "Oh What a Beautiful Mourning!" with a fade ending. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis

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