A whip-smart, impeccably crafted debut mystery, A Murder of Magpies takes readers on a whirlwind tour of London and Paris with an unforgettably original new heroine
It's just another day at the office for London book editor Samantha "Sam" Clair. Checking jacket copy for howlers, wondering how to break it to her star novelist that her latest effort is utterly unpublishable, lunch scheduled with gossipy author Kit Lowell, whose new book will dish the juicy dirt on a recent fashion industry scandal. Little does she know the trouble Kit's book will cause-before it even goes to print. When police Inspector Field turns up at the venerable offices of Timmins & Ross, asking questions about a package addressed to Sam, she knows something is wrong. Now Sam's nine-to-five life is turned upside down as she finds herself propelled into a criminal investigation. Someone doesn't want Kit's manuscript published and unless Sam can put the pieces together in time, they'll do anything to stop it.
With this deliciously funny debut novel, acclaimed author Judith Flanders introduces readers to an enormously enjoyable, too-clever-for-her-own-good new amateur sleuth, as well Sam's Goth assistant, her effortlessly glamorous mother, and the handsome Inspector Field. A tremendously entertaining read, this page-turning novel from a bright new crime fiction talent is impossible to put down.
About the Author
JUDITH FLANDERS is the New York Times bestselling author of The Invention of Murder and one of the foremost social historians of the Victorian era. She is a contributor to the Daily Telegraph, Guardian, Spectator, and the Times Literary Supplement. Before turning her hand to writing, Judith worked as an editor for various publishing houses, including the publications department of the National Portrait Gallery, London. She lives in London.
Read an Excerpt
A Murder of Magpies
By Judith Flanders
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2014 Judith Flanders
All rights reserved.
"Oh, just kill me now!" I didn't shriek that out loud, just clenched my teeth more tightly. It was eight thirty, and already the day couldn't get much worse. I'm always at my desk by eight, not because I'm so wonderful, although I am, but because it's the only time of day when no one asks me anything, when I can actually get on with some work, instead of solving other people's problems.
Being a middle-aged, middling-ly successful editor has a downside that no one tells you about when you're starting off. Publishing offices are run by middle-aged women like me. We will never be stars, but instead know dull things like how books are put together. We know how to find reliable proofreaders, what was done on that three-for-two promotion in 2010 and why it failed miserably, and even how to sweet-talk a recalcitrant designer into designing our book jackets instead of tweeting clips of his cat being adorable.
And so people ask you questions. They ask you all day. They text in meetings. They grab you in the corridor. They stop you in the street on your way to lunch. I'm only surprised that no one has followed me into the loo. Yet.
Luckily, most publishing people are not early risers, and from eight until at least nine thirty, often ten, the place looks like the Mary Celeste, and I get through all those jobs that need complete concentration and yet are completely boring—checking jackets (remember the time some squiffy copywriter thought that The Count of Monte Cristo was The Count of Monte Carlo?) or reading the stuff the marketing department wants to send out (I know they can't spell. It's just always a shock to find they can't cut-and-paste, either). In fact, on a good morning, I should be deeply aggravated by the time my assistant of the week staggers in.
Miranda was the current one, and to be fair to her, she's lasted three months. Before her was Amanda. Then Melanie. Then—well, lots more Amandas and Melanies. Publishing from the outside is so glamorous they arrive in droves. Then they discover that it's just office work, and that I don't spend my days swanning around the Wolseley taking TV presenters for three-hour lunches to discuss their autobiographies. Worse, they discover that I'm glad I'm not swanning around the Wolseley taking TV presenters for etc. etc. So they move on, either to the publicity department (more parties), or to the star editors (more everything).
Miranda is impressive. She has mastered such essential skills as getting the right address on the right mailing of proofs. (I know, but the last Amanda looked at me like I murdered kittens when I suggested she give it a try.) She likes reading, not something that always happens. And, bless her tidy little heart, she's a neatness freak, and files everything almost before I've put it down. It's true, she never shows up before ten, and her retro neo-Goth makeup makes some of my authors pause, but it's a small price to pay for someone who not only knows that M comes before N, but actually does something about it.
She wouldn't be in for another hour and a half, though, and my jaw was already clenched tight. My dentist tells me that I ought to have one of those contraptions that you wear to bed, to stop you grinding your teeth. I don't have the heart to tell him it's the daytime that does it for me. Today's gem was lurking for me first thing, a voice-mail message from Breda, left last night after I went home, saying in a faux cheerful voice that she hoped I liked the new book, and when was she going to hear from me?
Good question. Because I hated the new book. David, the editor-in-chief and my boss, hated the new book. The publicity department was frankly appalled by the new book. None of us, in fact, knew what to do about the new book, which was so embarrassing a hot wave of shame washed over me every time I thought about it, which I did as little as possible.
Breda McManus was one of our star authors, and my starriest author. Regular as clockwork, every other January for the last twelve years, she had delivered a nice fat slab of a manuscript, filled with middle-class girls growing into middle-class women, overcoming middle-class problems on the way. We published them in September, ready for the Christmas market, and they paid my salary, many times over.
They did well because Breda was exactly the kind of women she wrote about. She was a secretary in a solicitor's office in Galway and decided to write in her spare time. She now lived in a Georgian house with her husband, her children were grown, and she had decided that instead of redecorating the house she was going to redecorate her style. I felt exactly like one of those people on a makeover program where they walk in and have to pretend to adore the fact that the walls have been covered with aluminum foil.
Because Breda delivered a chick-lit novel.
Not only was chick lit well past its sell-by date, so was Breda's connection to twenty-year-olds. Hell, her children were in their forties. The damn thing was supposedly set in a poly (she hadn't noticed they were turned into universities decades ago), but it was more like a school story. The characters didn't quite have crushes on their teachers, and get up to "japes" in "rec," but it was awfully close.
Lots of readers (including most of my colleagues) despise Breda's books at the best of times. They love the literary fiction that we publish, and think that my sort of book is beneath contempt. I love literary fiction, too, but I also love what are called, usually dismissively, "women's reads." The fact that our literary fiction list has never paid its way, in the entire twenty-eight years of its life, is something we tactfully never mention. Instead the hip twenty-year-old du jour gets a huge publicity campaign, and once in forty or fifty writers we strike it lucky. In the meantime, Timmins & Ross makes its money every year on women like Breda.
Until now. So instead of reading proofs, checking marketing and publicity copy, and going through the schedules before our weekly progress meeting, I was on my fifth cup of coffee, which was something of a miracle when you consider how tightly my teeth were clenched.
I smelled french fries, but it couldn't, surely, be ten o'clock already. Then I heard Miranda's computer hum in the space outside my office where all the assistants are shoved in like battery hens. It was ten o'clock, and Miranda had evidently been out late the night before—the french fries and a Coke are her hangover cure. I collected the minutes for the meeting and headed out, whispering a tiny hello to Miranda, whose eyes were closed against the glare of her computer screen.
I hadn't gone ten feet when her phone rang, and, wincing, she called after me, "Sam, there's a Jacob Field in reception for you."
"Field? For me? Are you sure?" She stared at me. On hangover days she had the energy to say everything only once. I didn't know anyone named Jacob Field, and I don't make appointments on Tuesday mornings because we always have a meeting then, from ten o'clock until everyone is too bored to go on—usually lunchtime. "I'll go past reception—will you call David and tell him I'll be a few minutes late?" It was probably a friend of a friend, or someone who'd got my name somehow and was trying to flog a manuscript, no doubt about how his mother had abused him, or proving that his great-great-grandfather was Jack the Ripper. We don't have to deal with real live members of the public often, but every now and again one sneaks under the radar. It wouldn't take me long to get rid of him.
I walked briskly in to reception, smiling with my teeth bared. "Mr. Field? How can I help you?"
He was a surprise. No scruffy manuscript, no lost-dog look. Instead he was conservatively dressed, in student-y sort of way, a short, dark, stocky man in his early forties. He looked, in fact, like a publisher. I hesitated. Maybe he was an ex-colleague, and I was supposed to remember him? I looked again. Well-cut brown hair, nice brown eyes. In fact, generally just nice-looking, although it would have been difficult to put a finger on why.
I was confused. What did he inspect? Drains? Schools? Oh God, not a novel about a schools inspector.
He must have seen that I'd missed a few steps, so he spoke kindly and gently, as one does to the hard-of-thinking. "Inspector Field. CID."
Now I was totally lost.
He went on gamely, although he had realized he was going to get no help from me, as I was too dim-witted to know how to breathe without help. "Can we go somewhere to talk?"
He was right. Whatever he wanted, our reception area was no place to talk. "Area" was really a polite fiction. It was a desk stuck in a niche carved out of the corridor, and as most of my colleagues were only now arriving, dozens of people were pushing past us, reaching over us to collect parcels left overnight, calling back and forth to one another.
I motioned him up the stairs, signaling confusion at Bernadette, the receptionist, whose raised eyebrows signaled in return that this was more interesting than usual.
Once back in my office I gestured to a chair and waited. He took his time, looking at the piles of manuscripts, the acres of files, the almost obsessively empty desk surface, and the absence of anything decorative at all: a blank white space.
He sighed, as though I'd requested the meeting, and this was the last place he wanted to be. When he finally spoke, his voice was as abrupt as his manner. "Ms. Clair, can you tell me if you were expecting any parcels that have failed to appear?"
I mulled this gently for a moment. "Can I tell you about something that hasn't happened?" All right, I was being slow on the uptake. "I'm sorry," I said insincerely, "but could you tell me what we're talking about? And why?" I tried to find a way out. "I'm in the middle of a very busy morning. I should be in a meeting right now." His eyes narrowed at my very overt desire to avoid the meeting I was in, with him, and I softened my slightly schoolteacher-ish tone. "I'm really not sure who you are or why you want to talk to me."
He shrugged, but now he was apologetic, not dismissive. "I'm investigating a car accident."
That was no help. "An accident? CID? I don't know anything about the workings of the police, but it seems, well, an overreaction?"
He nodded. I wasn't the first person to say that to him today, and his earlier snappish tone was explained: I wouldn't be the last. I gave him that complicated shrug-hand-roll that says, Sorry your day is crap, but this is really nothing to do with me, now is it? He seemed to translate it without difficulty. "It's an unusual hit-and-run." He went on, as if slightly surprised himself that he was telling me this. "There was an accident on the Hammersmith flyover, early yesterday morning. A courier was hit by a van that didn't stop. It was wet and it looks like a straightforward hit-and-run, except that there were no parcels on his bike, and his list of deliveries for the day had vanished, too. Maybe the material vanished before the accident. Or maybe someone stole it afterward—no one saw it."
"What does the courier say?"
"He doesn't. He's dead."
I digested this in silence. Then, "How do I come into the picture?"
"The list and deliveries vanished, but his office had a copy of his schedule. You were on it."
"Who was the parcel from?"
"A mail shop. Without a tracking number or an order reference, they can't tell us who sent it. They have a few thousand items going through every day." He clicked his pen. To business. "I realize this is a nuisance, but we'll have to ask you to list everything that you are expecting."
I gave a snort. "Expecting? Lists? Inspector, this is publishing. Schedules are—" I searched for the word. "They're what we would like to believe might happen." I could see he wasn't following. "I have, I don't know, a hundred, a hundred and fifty authors with contracts that I look after. Some are due to deliver now, but in my business 'now' means ..." I tried to think how to explain it. "Have you ever watched when parents call their children in a playground? And the children shout 'Coming!' and keep on doing whatever they were doing before?" I widened my eyes and whispered, "Authors in the making!" He smiled, which was an improvement, but I could see he didn't think I was making a serious point. "Really. Most authors think that if they've delivered a manuscript within their lifetime it meets the legal definition of 'on schedule.'"
His lips quirked, but what I was saying was also annoying him. He wanted boxes to tick. Don't we all, Sunshine, I told him. But only in my head. Outwardly I tried to look sympathetic and helpful, not merely curious and simultaneously wanting him to go away so I could get to my meeting. I made a helpless gesture. "I don't know how to think about this—you're asking me to tell you what hasn't happened."
He jotted something in his notebook. Thank God, one box ticked, at least. "If you think of anything, will you ring me, please?"
He gave me a card, I pointed him in the right direction down the rabbit warren of corridors and headed off to the meeting room.
* * *
As I slipped into my seat, murmuring an apology for my lateness, Ben was saying, "This is going to be really mega."
If anything could have pushed a meeting with a detective out of my mind, it was Ben being mega. I hastily looked down at the minutes, because like Pavlov's dog, all he had to do was say the word and I was ready. But the dogs only drooled when Pavlov rang his bell. I was worried that one more time and I'd roll up my minutes and assault him with them, all the while shrieking "The word is big, you little toad. Big!" As you may be able to tell, Ben and I already have problems. Ben is twenty-six, and this is his first job. He is small, weedy, and terribly, terribly serious about his work. His. Not anyone else's. He despises everyone else's. He has, however, produced our only literary fiction in the last two years that has sold over five thousand copies, so people listen to him. Which is a pity, since he doesn't really have anything to say.
I've made an effort with him, truly I have. When he arrived, fresh-faced and eager-beaver-ish, straight down from Oxford, I took him out to lunch. I nearly drowned in my soup as I dozed off while he told me in detail about his life to that point. Even someone as self-absorbed as Ben noticed I was bored, although naturally he didn't think it was anything to do with him. We didn't repeat the lunch.
He is a good reader, and he spots trends, but everything for him is mega. Ben has never bought a book because he thought it would be a nice steady seller. His books either fail miserably (often), or they earn enough to be partly worth the ridiculous advances he pays (sometimes). Ben has major-league Big Dick Syndrome—if a book doesn't cost several times the GDP of many third-world countries, then he doesn't think it can be worth anything.
I looked fixedly at the minutes, as though still trying to find my place. "Yes, I see your point." Translation: No, I don't. "The proposal was quite interesting." Translation: It was barely three pages long, one entire page of which was about the author. Who was still at school. "But shouldn't we ask to see a sample chapter?" Translation: We don't know if the child can write.
An exasperated sound from Ben. "Look, Sam, there is major interest in this, and we've only got this far because his agent likes me."
Excerpted from A Murder of Magpies by Judith Flanders. Copyright © 2014 Judith Flanders. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A Murder of Magpies by Judith Flanders is a debut mystery. Samantha “Sam” Clair is an editor for Timmons and Ross (book publishers) in London. Sam is in her early 40’s, wears drab clothes, and has lived in the same flat since her 20’s. Her best friend is Kit Lovell. Kit is a fashion journalist and author. His latest book is The Gilded Life and Tarnished Death of Rodrigo Aleman. Rodrigo Aleman was a fashion designer for the House of Vernet. When Rodrigo Aleman died everyone knew it was murder (he is hit by a hit and run driver, backed over and hit again), but some higher ups bribed the right officials to have his death declared an accident. Kit also alludes to money laundering taking place through Vernet’s parent company, Lambert-Lorraine. Sam’s day starts with a visit from Inspector Jacob (Jake) Field. A courier was an accident and his packages taken. The Inspector wanted to know what packages Sam was expecting. It is eventually determined that Kit’s manuscript was missing. Then Kit ends up missing. Sam wants to find out what happened to her friend. The police do not take the case of Kit missing very seriously, so Sam sets out to find out what happened to him. This leads to a convoluted and long story of looking for Kit, accusation of harassment from a student (Kit lectured at a college), money laundering, trip to Paris, and lots of legal mumbo jumbo. Interspersed throughout the book is the story of Breda McManus and her latest book. Breda usually writes popular romance books. This year she has sent Sam a book that is different and no one knows what to do about it. There is also Helena Clair. Helena is Sam’s mother and a solicitor. Helena is a great character. There is a great scene towards the end of the book with Helena and Sam that had me laughing (involves breaking and entering with a lot of keys). We also have a lackluster romance between Sam and Inspector Jake Field (they greet each other with a kiss on the cheek). A Murder of Magpies sounded like an interesting book. A mystery, the publishing industry, and it is set in London! However, the reality is a long and very boring book. It was difficult for me to finish it (I kept at it though after a night of rest and some headache medicine). I give A Murder of Magpies 2.5 out of 5 stars (it actually got better towards the end). I really wanted to like this book, but it needs major editing. There is too much technical legal wording in the book and very little about the publishing industry. The book is also written in the first person (fair warning). I was a very disappointed reader (the cover is cute though). I received a complimentary copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
No magpies, but a lot of clever dialogue and quick twists in plot line.
Look forward to more by this author