No. 8 in the Kate Lawrence Mystery Series: The sudden death of a publishing colleague of Margo’s Auntie May overshadows the Mystery USA convention in Connecticut. The mystery deepens when May receives a letter from the victim, leaving her the rights to an unpublished manuscript from a bestselling author, now deceased, and giving her coded clues about where to find it. As Kate, Margo, Strutter and May race to crack the code, it becomes obvious that they’re not alone in their quest. Can the blockbuster new title save May’s struggling publishing business, or will it be her swan song?
“I can’t believe you talked me into this, Auntie May,” Margo groused as we rode the escalator up from the lobby of the Hartford Hilton. She tucked a stray wisp of hair back into her blonde chignon. “Two and a half days of mostly bad writers swannin’ around playing author and tryin’ to sell their books to each other in the middle of February. You’d think they would have booked a place in Florida. Is the bar on this level, Kate?” She craned her elegant neck as we neared the end of our ascent and followed May into a crowded meet-and-mingle space on the mezzanine level. I trailed behind.
“If either one of you finds it, let me know. After the day we had, my soul requires Jim Beam,” her aunt replied with some tartness.
I peered hopefully into the crowd, which seemed to be clustered at the rear of the large, open room. I pointed. “Bet it’s back there. Too bad there are about three hundred members of Mysteries USA standing between it and us.” I couldn’t help the whiny tone. I was tired, and I’m sure I looked it. Also, my feet were killing me. The fact that my partner Margo had had an equally exhausting day but looked fresh as a daisy didn’t improve my mood, nor did knowing that her Aunt May, a decade older than we were, looked entirely ready to party. It must run in the Farnsworth gene pool.
The senior citizen in question just smiled serenely and waggled her fingers at yet another cluster of women who were ogling the crowd, clearly star struck. “Oh, Christ on a crutch,” she murmured under her breath, the pleasant expression never faltering as her eyes slid casually from the women back to Margo and me. “They’ve identified me as somebody they should try to cozy up to, but they can’t quite come up with my name. Don’t make eye contact.” She grasped my arm and gave me a little shove in the direction of the hoped-for bar. We oozed and excused ourselves through the crowd with May sandwiched between me on point and Margo bringing up the rear.
Drinks safely in hand, we reassembled our formation and followed May’s directions to the nearest exit, a door marked Stairs. The staircase on the other side led down to the lobby and was blessedly empty. May flopped onto the top step, and we arranged ourselves on the steps below her. “Aren’t you worried about being trapped here by one of your adoring fans?” I cautioned.
“Not a bit, Katie girl. When you’ve been to as many of these things as I have, you know the point of these receptions is to see and be seen, mostly coming and going. They’ll use the escalator, not the fire stairs.” She swigged her bourbon and sighed with pure pleasure. “I’ve done my duty simply by moving through the crowd once and wavin’ at a few folks. I could probably leave right now, show up for the award presentation Saturday night and be home free. I’ve got a copy of the complete program in my purse, which I’ll memorize. All I have to do when somebody asks if I was at such-and-such at a certain time is tell ‘em I was somewhere else. Which I will be. It just won’t be anywhere near the Hartford Hilton.” She and Margo giggled conspiratorially, experts in the art of making required appearances.
Without warning, the fire door behind us swung open, and an obviously tipsy woman of mature years lurched toward us, grinning broadly. “May Farnsworth, you old harridan! Someone told me you actually showed up. I couldn’t believe it, but I knew where to look for you, just in case it was true. Even if you win the award this year, I’d have expected you to be a no-show, knowing how you feel about these pretentious little gatherings. Who are your pals?” She swayed on her stilettos and fell, more than sat, onto the top step next to May. Fortunately, the plastic highball glass in her hand held little more than melting ice cubes.
May’s expression was resigned, but she greeted the newcomer civilly enough. “Well, hey there, Lizzie, fancy meeting you here. I thought the one thing you and I agreed on was the general uselessness of writers’ conventions. What brings you here? By the way, meet my niece, Margo Harkness, and her business partner, Kate Lawrence. Ladies, meet Lizabeth Mulgrew, a longtime colleague in the publishing business. She publishes my books, as well as the work of Jessica Price, my main competition for the best mystery of the year award Saturday night.”
Lizabeth extended a damp hand to each of us in turn. No one but me would have noticed the slight distaste on Margo’s beautiful face, and I made an effort to be discreet while wiping my hand on my skirt. Nobody could say we weren’t well-behaved in public. Most of the time. Well, some of the time.
Lizabeth’s attention had already reverted to May. “Guess you haven’t had time to peruse the program booklet,” she surmised, “or you’d know that besides publishing the best two mysteries in this year’s competition, I’m the keynote speaker at the luncheon tomorrow. Whatever you do, don’t miss it, because lord almighty, do I have some things to say to these Hopeless Hannahs.” She rattled her ice cubes and chuckled.
May looked interested for the first time that evening. “Sounds fun, Lizzie. What’s your topic, how to succeed in getting a publisher to love your work despite the fact that you wrote a lousy book?” She laughed as she said it, clearly making a little joke, and Margo and I chimed in.
Lizabeth didn’t laugh. “You’re not all that far off, gal pal. I was invited to offer inside tips to the wannabes on how to draw favorable attention from publishers. That’s what it says in the program book. Attendance should be high.” She giggled again. “That’s not what I’m going to tell the dewy-eyed darlings, though. I’m going to tell them something they go to extraordinary lengths not to tell each other.”
“And that is?” Margo wanted to know.
“I’m going to tell them the truth, and hoo boy, they are not going to like it, not one bit.”
May’s eyes narrowed as Margo and I exchanged puzzled glances. “You’ve been softening the truth to aspiring writers for a lot of years now,” she reminded Lizabeth. “So have I, although I am increasingly not proud of it. What’s changed?”
Lizabeth sobered abruptly, and the smile left her face. “I’ve changed, that’s what. I’ve spent eight long years telling people who can’t write that they can and transforming their so-called manuscripts into something approaching publishable, then put up with their histrionics over the edits I made. I’ve fronted the considerable production expenses and done all the editing and formatting work, only to be accused of short-changing them on their pitiful royalties. I’ve seen the few really good writers fail because they refuse to do the necessary marketing work, while the schlocks flourish on CreateSpace, and I’ve finally figured out why—because 98% of the readers out there can’t tell the difference between good writing and bad. They spend their evenings watching reality TV shows about surburban floozies and morbidly obese people competing to lose weight for money. That’s the real market these days, and I, for one, think most writers should go for it.” She upended her plastic glass and crunched morosely on the few remaining ice chips.
May looked thoughtful. “Okay. So precisely what are you going to tell them to do?”
Lizabeth stared out into the otherwise empty stairwell. “This crowd doesn’t want to hear that most of them are dismal hacks who will never make it into the big leagues, which is the reality, of course. So I’m going to tell them the rest of the truth–that publishers have become obsolete for all but the most talented of writers. Instead of wasting months and years of their lives submitting their substandard work to dinosaurs like you and me, who cling misguidedly to anachronistic concepts like grammar, punctuation and fact-checking, they should run, not walk, to the nearest self-publishing site and just get on with it. In fact, we should all stop wasting our time, and I’m talking about you and me.”
Margo was uncharacteristically silent, and I found myself holding my breath. Even May, usually poise personified, looked a bit rattled by Lizabeth’s rant. I could tell she was choosing her words with care. “How do you mean, Lizzie?”
Lizabeth leaned closer to her friend and colleague, her face serious. “Close down, shut up shop, get out of what is laughably called the business. Small publishing isn’t a real business these days. Businesses make money. What we do might more accurately be termed a very expensive hobby, and CreateSpace and all of the other self-publishing options that are now available have sucked the fun, not to mention even minimal profit, right out of it. It just ain’t worth the hassle anymore, girlfriend, so I say, open the floodgates. Let them all slug it out on an even playing field, totally overwhelm an already crowded market with their bad books, and may the best hack win.”
May waded in carefully with a wry chuckle. “I know how you feel, although I’m in a different position. I write mysteries, but I publish romances, and there’s quite a bit more profit in that genre these days. You’re right, though. Publishing is a heck of a lot of work, and the financial rewards are paltry compared to other lines of endeavor.” She punched Lizabeth’s arm playfully. “But you can’t be serious. What would a couple of old wordsmiths like us do with ourselves if we didn’t have our little publishing enterprises to run? Besides, somebody has to serve as gatekeepers besides the Big Five—or is four now?—publishers. We can’t let the riff raff take over without even trying to stem the tide.”
Lizabeth’s frown became even more pronounced. “What makes you think they haven’t taken over already?” She waved a hand vaguely at the closed fire door and the crowd assembled on the other side of it. “Did you get a load of this year’s group? Ten years ago these old gals would have been volunteering at hospitals and blood drives, running food banks, delivering meals to shut-ins … you know, doing some actual good in the world. Now they’re forking out thousands of dollars to attend ridiculous functions like this one, conventions that aren’t going to make money for anyone but their sponsors, and pretending they have a shot at becoming successful authors. It’s worse than misguided. It’s obscene.”
She lurched to her feet, and Margo and I exchanged worried glances as May rose to steady her. “Maybe it’s time to call it a night,” she suggested gently. “Do you have a room here? We could walk down a flight to the lobby and scoot you into an elevator with no one the wiser.”
Lizabeth gave a sharp bark of laughter. “You mean, I should avoid being seen in this condition by my esteemed colleagues,” she corrected May. “Yes, maybe you’re right. If I don’t get some aspirin and a couple of quarts of water into me very soon, my head is going to hurt like hell in the morning. No point in adding physical distress to the intellectual agony of this occasion.” She put her empty cup on the floor with great care and took the arm May proffered. “Lead on, Macduff. Let’s get the tipsy old bat safely to bed.”