You know how when you read a book in a particularly lovely setting, your memories of the story get tangled up in the memories of the place where you read it? I can never think of Elinor Lipman without picturing the Massachusetts hammock where I devoured The Ladies’ Man in 1999, for instance. But reading a book in an unhappy place can be just as transformative, and I found myself bonded to Judith Flanders’ Samantha Clair mystery series in the course of a long night in the ER when I had pneumonia last fall.
As I spent eight hours waiting for a CT scan, I was glad to distract myself with A Murder of Magpies, the first novel featuring Sam, a London book editor who finds herself investigating the disappearance of one of her authors—a gossip columnist—in between having lunch with agents, writing cover memos, and trying to figure out if her star writer’s new novel is as bad as she thinks it is.
Flanders’ books—there are three now, including A Bed of Scorpions and A Cast of Vultures, which came out last month—are narrated in Sam’s wry first-person voice; she complains (humorously) about boring meetings, the London Book Fair, and the “after-work work” of book parties: “The requirements for a successful publishing party in London are few, and easy to remember. Lots of alcohol and then, really, well, lots more alcohol. That’s it.” The mysteries are sharp and complex, though the third book, which finds its murder in Sam’s neighborhood rather than in the publishing world, occasionally drags.
The cover of A Murder of Magpies has blurbs by two of my favorite mystery writers, Donna Leon and Louise Penny. (Since we’re talking about the business of publishing, why not mention the blurbs?) Like those two, Flanders has created a distinctive hero and placed her in a fully realized world—and the fact that it’s the book world makes this series irresistible. Laurie Muchnick is the fiction editor.