So excited today to bring you an excerpt from Murder She Wrote, A Manuscript for Murder by Jessica Fletcher & Jon Land! Has anyone watched this show? I love a good cozy mystery 🎉
Jessica Fletcher has had plenty to worry about over her storied career, both as a bestselling novelist and amateur sleuth. But she never had any reason to worry about her longtime publisher, Lane Barfield, who also happens to be a trusted friend. When mounting evidence of financial malfeasance leads to an FBI investigation of Lane, Jessica can’t believe what she’s reading.
So when Barfield turns up dead, Jessica takes on the task of proving Barfield’s innocence–she can’t fathom someone she’s known and trusted for so long cheating her. Sure enough, Jessica’s lone wolf investigation turns up several oddities and inconsistencies in Barfield’s murder. Jessica knows something is being covered up, but what exactly? The trail she takes to answer that question reveals something far more nefarious afoot, involving shadowy characters from the heights of power in Washington. At the heart of Jessica’s investigation lies a manuscript Barfield had intended to bring out after all other publishers had turned it down. The problem is that manuscript has disappeared, all traces of its submission and very existence having been wiped off the books.
With her own life now in jeopardy, Jessica refuses to back off and sets her sights on learning the contents of that manuscript and what about it may have led to several murders. Every step she takes brings her closer to the truth of what lies in the pages, as well as the person who penned them.
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“What’s the most fun you ever had killing someone?”
I’ve been asked just about everything at book events, but that question was a first. I looked out from behind the podium at the woman who posed it, and found it wasn’t a woman at all but a girl who looked to be in her teens. She was chomping on some gum and holding one of those energy drinks, this one colored aquamarine of all things. What flavor was that exactly? Maybe I’d ask her later.
“Well, I’ve written so many books,” I said, still forming the rest of my response. “Let’s see. . . .” Drawing a blank, I thought I’d try a different approach. “The first thing that comes to mind isn’t actually from one of my books at all. It’s from a story written by Roald Dahl called ‘Lamb to the Slaughter.'”
In the back row, Seth Hazlitt and Mort Metzger, who’d made the trip from Cabot Cove to New York to help celebrate the release of my latest book, started bowing invisible violins, knowing what happened sometimes when I got off on a tangent at these things. I pried my eyes off them and returned my focus to the teenage girl who’d posed the question.
“A woman murders her husband with a frozen leg of lamb,” I continued, “then cooks and serves it to the police investigating the case. It was adapted for an old TV show called Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and the last line, spoken by the lead detective as he bites into the lamb, is something to the effect of ‘I’m sure the solution is right under our noses.'”
Seth and Mort were feigning yawns now, leaving me contemplating ways I might be able to get even. Maybe I’d invite them over for dinner; maybe I’d even serve lamb. Then again, given my reputation as a cook, they probably wouldn’t show up.
The teenage girl was jotting down notes on a pad, something I was hardly used to at a book signing. It was rare even for press people to take notes these days, preferring to just switch on their cell phones to record the interview. Not that I did a lot of interviews. Writers are famous only to those who read our books and I’ve never been comfortable with the whole nature of celebrity. It was something that belonged to film and television stars, not authors, and particularly not me.
“Anyone else?” I asked those assembled at Otto Penzler’s fabulous Mysterious Book Shop, located on Warren Street in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood.
It had been in business for about the same length of time I’d been a published author, and I so loved cramming in people for an event like this, surrounded by books by the true legends of our craft, any number of them signed first editions. There was something about being inside a place with such a sense of history, with so many titles and authors that have stood the test of time, that made me appreciate my career and whatever level of success I’d managed to achieve. Many of those whose work was prominently featured were no longer with us, but their books always would be.
I watched a few hands rise into the air, and was about to call on a man this time when I spotted a figure weaving his way to a chair in a row toward the back. I recognized Thomas Rudd immediately, even though the years had not treated him well since the last time we’d met. He’d been an author of some repute, a master of noir whose work had regularly appeared on the New York Times paperback bestseller list, until that list went away a few years back. We shared the same publisher and I’d heard that publication of Rudd’s latest effort had been canceled, mostly because the head of the imprint we shared deemed it unpublishable. I’d also heard that he’d quit writing after a brazen display at our publisher’s office in which he’d flung the pages of his rejected manuscript into the face of an assistant.
Looking at Rudd now, I could see why he wasn’t writing. He was one of those people who’d looked old even when he was young, and now that he was older, he looked wan, worn, and much the worse for wear. The tweed suit I never saw him out of was draped over his emaciated frame and made for a perfect match with Rudd’s sallow, hollow cheeks mottled with several days of stubble. His eyes were drawn and rheumy, with bags the size of orange slices sagging beneath them. He took a seat but didn’t look settled at all, fidgeting with his knees as they knocked this way and that.
“Mrs. Fletcher,” started the man I’d forgotten I’d called upon, “which do you find more interesting: the mysteries you make up or the very real ones you often end up involved in?”
“That’s quite a question,” I said, glad it had distracted me from the presence of Thomas Rudd, though my gaze drifted back his way to find him picking at his fingernails. “I like to be in control, and I also like it when good triumphs in the end and everything gets wrapped up in a nice, satisfying package. So I’d have to go with the real ones.”
I waited for the smattering of laughter to die down before continuing. “The truth is, writing is about organization and predictability, neither of which comes into play much with reality. I seem to stumble into the mysteries I do mostly to help people, and let me say this to answer your question,” I told the man. “I think that kind of experience in the real world has made me a better writer, because it’s brought me a great appreciation of the cost of crime. How many people are affected and hurt when someone is killed. I guess you could call that collateral damage, and I believe it’s what reality is all about yet what fiction usually pays little attention to.”
The man nodded, smiling. In the back row, Seth and Mort were now pretending to be asleep. Thomas Rudd was studying me intently, as if something I’d just said resonated with him somehow. Before I could continue, Otto stepped out in his typically stately fashion.
“That’s all the time we have, but Jessica will be staying with us to sign books for you, backlist included. Right, Mrs. Fletcher?”
“Of course.” I smiled, already moving to take my chair behind the signing table before a sea of Sharpies and a bottle of water.
Many writers will tell you they detest these things, and while some do, the vast majority of us revel in the opportunity to meet and greet our readers. After all, they made the effort to come out and spend their hard-earned money for a brand-new hardcover just to have me sign it. I’ve never been able to accurately express how much that means to me, especially given the fact that the only book signings I’ve ever attended have been my own.
Based on the depletion of the pile, I probably signed around forty as the store’s staff assisted me and while Seth and Mort busied themselves at the wine and cheese station, doing their best to take advantage of Otto’s hospitality. It wasn’t until the line neared its end that I recalled Thomas Rudd’s tardy appearance and gazed out past the chairs more of the staff were folding up, but he was nowhere to be found.
Once IÕd finished signing, Seth, Mort, and I walked the short distance to Le Pain Quotidien, just up the street from the Mysterious Book Shop. IÕd invited Otto to join us but heÕd declined, saying he had a prior engagement with Lee Child and David Morrell.
“Reacher and Rambo,” he said, a bit guiltily. “How could I say no?”
“Well, you’re buying next time,” I told him.
Le Pain Quotidien might’ve been a chain, but each LPQ I’d eaten at felt like a stand-alone. Even the pastries tasted different, as if each store added its own wrinkle to the mix. It was the perfect place to go when you wanted more than a snack but less than a full meal and it featured a bright, airy atmosphere populated mostly by patrons comparable to the teenage girl who’d asked me my favorite way to murder someone.
“That was a great answer you gave that girl,” Mort commented, “about that episode from Alfred Hitchcock. I remember seeing it.”
“Never realized it was based on a story, ayuh,” noted Seth. “I was always more partial to The Twilight Zone, anyway.”
“Plenty of those were based on short stories, too, some by the likes of Richard Matheson.”
“He wrote the episode ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.'”
“William Shatner starred in it.”
“Oh yeah.” Seth nodded. “That was a good one. I’m thinking of picking up some Ronald Dahl now, thanks to you, Jessica.”
“It’s Roald Dahl, Seth.”
“Isn’t that what I just said?”
We were about to laugh, all three of us, when the disheveled Thomas Rudd entered Le Pain Quotidien and shambled toward our table like a scarecrow walking away from its perch.
“Mind if I join you?” he asked as he reached our table.
Without waiting for our answer, Rudd spun the lone empty chair around and shoved it forward, forcing Seth and Mort to shift their chairs aside. Rudd straddled his chair, his worn tweed suit smelling damp and musty. At least, I thought it was the suit. His appearance suggested a general lack of hygiene, as if he’d given up caring about more than just his writing. I couldn’t tell whether the second scent I detected was stale hair gel rising from his unwashed mane. The fingernails I’d noticed him picking at inside the Mysterious Book Shop were yellowed at the base, a sign of ill health to go with his teeth, which gave him the look of a man who’d lived on coffee and cigarettes for much too long.
“I’m here to do you a favor, Jessica,” he said in a hoarse voice that pushed out breath that stank of whiskey. “You’re going to be thanking me a whole lot. Oh, Mrs. Fletcher, you have no idea.”
Seth and Mort looked at each other and then at me, as if for a cue. I’d seen that look on Mort’s face plenty of times before: his cop look, his eyes fixed on Thomas Rudd as if he were studying a lottery ticket to see if he had a winner. Had he been allowed to carry his gun in New York City, I imagine one of his hands would have instinctively strayed toward it.
“Is everything all right, Thomas?” I asked, my lame question originating from the fact that I didn’t know what else to say.
“No, it most certainly isn’t. I’m being robbed.”
I nodded, trying to show as much compassion as I could, given all that I’d heard about Rudd’s plight. Looking at him now, it was hard to reconcile this disheveled man with the cult figure whose picture had graced the back cover of dozens of bestselling paperbacks and who had been proclaimed the King of Noir once by none other than the New York Times Book Review.
“And so are you,” Rudd continued, his eyes seeking me out and fighting to focus. “You’re being robbed, too.”
I could tell how increasingly uneasy Seth and Mort were becoming with the whole scene. “I’m staying overnight, Thomas. Why don’t we meet up to talk in the morning? As you can see, I have company. I’m sure this can wait.”
“Just like you’re sure you’re not being ripped off by our mutual publisher. And you’re wrong there, too, because no, this can’t wait. It’s waited long enough, dollars being stolen from us by the moment. Ching, ching, ching!” he added, doing his best impersonation of an old-fashioned cash register.
His voice plowed right over my words. “It’s the royalty statements, Jessica! Or should I say the lack thereof.”
“Thomas,” I said, loudly enough to keep him from interrupting me again, “there’s a time and a place to discuss this, but here and now isn’t it.”
Rudd picked up a roll from the basket in the center of the table, put it back, and plucked another. I wondered if his financial ills had reached a point where that would pass for dinner.
“Do you still live in the area?” I continued. “Your apartment’s just a few blocks from here, isn’t it?”
“For now, anyway.” He frowned. “Only thanks to rent control.” He seemed to be settling down before his hollow cheeks went flush again. “He’s a crook, Jessica. You may think he’s your friend, but he’s not.”
“Who are we talking about?”
“Lane Barfield, our publisher-who else?”
“Barfield’s stealing our royalties personally?”
“Head of the snake.” He nodded. “I can explain it all to you, tell your accountant what to look for. I’m going to sue him for everything he’s worth. I’m going to sue the whole damn company. I’m going to get the rights back to every single book they’ve let lapse and publish them myself and make a killing. Then I’m going to write new books that sell even better.”
I didn’t know what to say. What can you say to someone who’s clearly delusional, his judgment clouded by failure and temperament spoiled by booze?
“I heard things didn’t work out for your latest book-”
“Good thing, since there’ll be less for Barfield to steal, the jackass.”
“You didn’t let me finish, Thomas,” I said, putting an edge in my voice. “I was going to say maybe I can help find you a replacement publisher. I’ve got contacts around town from all the endorsements I get asked to give. It’ll be nice to finally call in one of those favors. How about breakfast tomorrow?”
Rudd rocked backward. “You think I’m a charity case?”
“I think you need a publisher.”
Before Rudd could respond, Mort stood up, slowly and menacingly, his torso angled forward to make himself appear closer to Thomas Rudd. Within range, whatever that meant. Mort might have left his hardened days as a vice detective with the Massachusetts State Police behind when he settled in Cabot Cove as sheriff, but he could still bring it when he wanted to.
“I think you should leave,” he said to Thomas Rudd in a tone that left no room for doubt. “You can take the rolls to go.”
Whoa, I’d never heard Mort talk like that, couldn’t recall a time when he’d stood up for me so demonstratively. Sure, Thomas Rudd was an easy target, but I was still impressed by Mort’s boldness and I could tell Dr. Seth Hazlitt was, too, based on his expression.
Rudd looked up at Mort, trying to appear tough while pretending to know who he was. “You’re the police chief.”