Judith Flanders: A Murder of Magpies

murder-of-magpiesJudith Flanders is a well known expert on Victorian manners and history, whose most recent book The Invention of Murder sits on our history mystery table. This is her first foray into fiction, and it’s delightful, causing me to both laugh aloud and copiously dog ear pages as Ms. Flanders is exquisitely quotable.

I loved her premise and setting. Her main character, Sam Clair, is a senior book editor at a major British publisher, and she’s in her forties. Flanders makes full use of Sam’s age, experience and gender, sliding in blindingly astute vignettes illustrating how women of a certain age tend to be ignored. As this book proves, ignoring a middle aged woman comes with its own perils.

I loved the set-up to the crime – Sam’s client and friend, fashion writer Kit, has vanished, having penned a new book about the murder of a well known designer (similarities to Versace’s death come to mind). Kit has also uncovered some money laundering and his manuscript begins to be a hot item, causing a break-in at Sam’s apartment.

Sam has already been interviewed by the police in the form of the delightful Jake, and the two spend a bit of time circling warily around each other. Helping the cause is Sam’s brilliant lawyer mother, Helena, and Sam’s mysterious upstairs neighbor, Mr. Rudiger. The four make a good informal team.

Flanders’ brisk, humorous intelligence carries the book through some of the soggier bits. The story about the money laundering is far too convoluted and confusing but when she returns to basic storytelling she’s on steadier ground, especially when she’s delivering a zinger of one form or another. One of my favorites came toward the end of the book, where Sam faces down the hotshot wunderkind editor, Ben: “Ben had always treated me like I was a brain-dead senior citizen, gently knitting and dozing in the corner while he got on with the cutting edge of publishing. It was time he realized everyone over twenty-five wasn’t senile yet. I smiled viciously at him, showing all my teeth.”

I definitely hope Sam Clair continues as she’s fascinating, smart and funny. In fiction, as in life, those are three qualities not to be missed.