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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