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Erica’s Pick of the Week: The McMasters Guide to Homicide, Volume I

First, a disclaimer: I like my job very much. I did not pick up The McMasters Guide To Homicide, Volume 1: Murder Your Employer for any reason other than my love of classic mysteries and the delightfully fussy cover.

Second, if you are looking for a classic mystery…this book is not it. Think of it instead as a cozy thriller, or a cross between Agatha Christie and PG Wodehouse: slyly clever, a little bonkers, with a good heart and lots of wordplay. 

The McMasters Conservatory for The Applied Arts is a secretive “Poison Ivy League” college specializing in the art of murder. Students looking to commit a specific “deletion” – one where the subject deserves their fate – can attend McMasters for an exorbitant fee and learn how to commit their crime undetected. Their final exam: to delete their target. If they succeed, they graduate. If not, they are deleted. It’s the ultimate in pass-fail grading. 

Now, McMasters is publishing a how-to guide for the home audience. (Which seems to defy their insistence on secrecy, but our narrator explains the logic.) The Guide follows three aspiring deletists from the 1950s – Cliff, an aeronautical engineer; Gemma, a hospital administrator; and Doria, a former Hollywood starlet – all saddled with odious employers and good reason to wish them gone. We watch them acclimate to life at McMasters, navigate the often-treacherous competition, and refine their skills. And then we watch them take their final exam, with mixed results. 

Despite its vintage feel (Packard sedans! Payphones everywhere!) this is actually the inverse of a mystery. We know the killers, the victims, and the motives. But we also know that only two of the trio are successful, and therein lies the tension. Who will pass – and how? Who fails – and why? There’s very little onscreen blood, but there are plot twists and poetic justice galore, up to the very last page.

What really makes this story stand out is Rupert Holmes’ knack for wordplay and dark comedy – it’s a tall order to make a school full of killers funny without tipping into buffoonery, but the puns, double entendres, and bone-dry delivery are all perfectly balanced. You might not laugh out loud, but you’ll definitely snicker.

Murder Your Employer is (dare I say it?) criminally good – and a great fit for mystery readers who are eager for a fresh, funny twist on the genre.

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