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Murder, She Wrote: Manuscript for Murder

Review

Murder, She Wrote: Manuscript for Murder

When Jon Land took over the helm as the “ghostwriter” of the Murder, She Wrote series from the late Donald Bain, he thrilled legions of loyal fans who just cannot do without their literary Jessica Fletcher fix. The beloved television series that featured Dame Angela Lansbury was great, but it’s in the pages of the novels that the character truly comes to life.

In his second foray into the life of Cabot Cove's most famous resident, Land tops himself with a Jessica Fletcher tale that is part cozy mystery, part Agatha Christie and part political thriller. MANUSCRIPT FOR MURDER begins with a very prophetic saying from Sherlock Holmes taken from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES: “The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.” As the action of the story rolled forward, I often found myself returning to this quote and how appropriate it was in describing the essence of the tale.

The action actually made me feel homesick for my favorite bookstore. Jessica is attending a discussion and book signing at Otto Penzler's world famous Mysterious Bookshop in New York City (although I must confess that I preferred the midtown location to the current one in Tribeca). It is here where Jessica is distracted by the presence of a fellow author she knows well. Thomas Rudd made a name for himself in the paperback trade with a series of hard-boiled private eye novels. However, recent years have seen his stories fall out of fashion, and he has become infamous for sinking into self-despair and casting blame for his woes on his publisher.

"The body count is impressive, but not as much as Jon Land's deft plotting.... I am sure that readers will be turning the pages and gritting their teeth with equal amounts of speed and vigor."

It turns out that Jessica and Rudd share the same publisher, Lane Barfield. Rudd imposes himself on her at a post-book signing meal she’s having with close friends and begins to outline how he believes Barfield has been ripping off both himself and all the authors he managed by way of unpaid royalties. Jessica makes plans to meet privately with Rudd the next morning over breakfast, but he never shows. When she walks to the apartment complex where he resides, she finds the NYPD and NYFD present. A gas fire originating from Rudd's room has taken the dour author’s life.

Jessica turns up unannounced at Barfield's office and shares the sad news. Barfield informs her that the last time he saw Rudd, he had to make a false promise of teaming him up with a popular writer on an upcoming project. Rudd made a scene, during which he allegedly walked out with Barfield’s zip drive that had some important information on it. He goes on to hand Jessica a manuscript for a debut novel entitled "The Affair" that was written under the pseudonym “Benjamin Tally.” He touts it as the next big thing and really wants Jessica's opinion --- and a potential blurb.

Meanwhile, Jessica asks her accountant to look into Rudd's claims of stolen royalties, and he initially finds some merit to the accusation. If his figures are correct, the total could be in the millions that Barfield may have absconded with off the work of his authors. Just as Jessica is getting started on "The Affair," she receives more bad news --- Barfield has been found dead in his home, the apparent victim of a suicide.

Two days in NYC and two dead long-time colleagues. This does not sit right with Jessica, and in her indomitable fashion, she makes this the newest mystery she will sink her teeth into. There is one very interesting thing in common with both Rudd and Barfield at the time of their deaths: "The Affair." Barfield had given Jessica the only copy he had because the electronic file was on the same zip drive taken by Rudd. What could be in this hot literary property that brought about two high-profile murders?

"The Affair" is a political thriller that finds the daughter of the President of the United States involved in a scandalous ordeal that could rock the very foundations of the White House. The novel creeps into Jessica's mind and gives her bad vibes. She reflects that, as a mystery writer, she often finds the conspiratorial nature of evil creeping into everyday life. Little does she know that this potentially “evil” manuscript she’s holding is now putting her own life in danger, and there may be nowhere to hide.

Barfield's assistant goes missing, and another author, A.J. Falcone, turns up dead not long after he had read and passed on blurbing "The Affair" for Barfield. Jessica is working with her NYPD contact, Artie Gelber, although she initially does not mention the manuscript. She returns home to Cabot Cove, where she only shares her fears with her closest friends --- local sheriff Mort Metzger and her doctor, Seth Hazlitt. Mort and Jessica come upon the corpse of yet another writer who may have been connected to the manuscript. The horror then really hits her hard when she is attacked in her home by two masked men who set the house on fire and leave her for dead.

Jessica survives but is badly shaken, and the damage to her home and property is significant. Things are now escalated beyond a mere local investigation as the FBI is contacted, and they look to work with Artie on his open cases in NYC. The biggest loss in the fire is the manuscript that Jessica never got around to finishing. However, she feels that things involving this story are serious enough for her to turn to a much higher power --- her friend, First Lady Stephanie Albright.

President Robert Albright rose to the nation's highest office mainly due to receiving a ton of sympathy votes when he and Stephanie lost their daughter to a drug overdose. After her meeting in D.C. with the Albrights, Jessica receives an anonymous, cryptic text that reads: “She didn't die of a drug overdose.” This sets Jessica's mind racing. Could the Albrights be behind a cover-up involving their own daughter, or is something even more sinister going on that is marking for death everyone who comes into contact with "The Affair"?

The body count is impressive, but not as much as Jon Land's deft plotting. MANUSCRIPT FOR MURDER takes you by the throat and never lets up. The final third of the novel spins one revelation after another until you won't know who to trust or what to believe. Never have I seen an edgier Jessica Fletcher mystery, which is a testament to the many different fictional genres in which Land has shown mastery. Even though there was a very good chance that Jessica was going to make it out of this dilemma, it still did not take away from the concern produced from the story, and I am sure that readers will be turning the pages and gritting their teeth with equal amounts of speed and vigor.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on November 9, 2018

Murder, She Wrote: Manuscript for Murder
by Jessica Fletcher and Jon Land

  • Publication Date: November 6, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Berkley
  • ISBN-10: 0451489306
  • ISBN-13: 9780451489302