It’s taken Rupert Holmes 13 years to deliver Murder Your Employer: The McMasters Guide to Homicide (Avid Reader, Feb.) and it was worth the wait for this wildly entertaining, clever, and inventive mystery novel, his third. For an artist who, in addition to being an author, is a composer, singer-songwriter, and dramatist, all can be forgiven.
Holmes, who’s now 75, began his career as a musician in his 20s and was known for writing pop songs with a story—most famously, 1979’s “Escape (The Piña Colada Song).” Listen to it on YouTube, and if you don’t recognize it, you’ve likely just arrived from the planet Mars. A prolific and successful playwright, his 1985 debut production, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, won five Tony Awards, and his career, in all its aspects, has been illustrious.
Murder Your Employer, the first volume of a proposed series set at the McMasters Conservatory, a university that teaches its students the art of murder (or, to use the preferable term, “deletion”), is about eliminating the boss “who lords it over you,” Holmes writes. The story follows three students who are referred to as deletists or homicidials. The university is selective and rigorous; failure has serious consequences. “The conservatory,” Holmes says, “puts an acceptable veneer on its devious sinister studies. You would kill to be there. It’s a delicious, elegant setting. The dining hall has a three-star restaurant!”
One enters McMasters to learn how to delete someone—without getting caught, of course. However, it’s essential that the person who’s to be eliminated deserves it; the world must be a better place with the target gone. Secrecy is of the utmost importance. As Holmes writes in the foreword: “The successful murderer is the unacknowledged murderer! I cannot begin to tell you how many McMasters graduates at this very moment illuminate the worlds of entertainment, sports, and politics. I cannot begin to tell you because if I did, they would all be on trial for their lives. It is a frustrating but necessary tribulation for our conservatory that we may never boast of our plethora of successful alumni. A common saying on campus is, ‘Wherever a murder goes unsolved, there goes a McMasters graduate.’ ”
Holmes rendered the campus in great detail. “I built the world in my head,” he says. “I wanted to know it so well that I could give a guided tour,” which is one reason the book took so long. Holmes started writing Murder Your Employer more than a decade ago and did “exhaustive preparatory.” He was also writing shows, adapting John Grisham’s book A Time to Kill for Broadway in 2013, among “many projects and challenges.” But when the pandemic closed theaters, he had time. “And I needed an escape,” Holmes says. “We all did. So I decided to sidestep into the portal of the early 1950s.”
He explains that he was inspired early on by a trip to a bookstore, where he realized that there “were guides for everything—Quantum Physics for Dummies, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting a Tattoo, how to make hamburgers—but nothing about homicide.” He adds, “I didn’t want to write a novelty book”—the goal was to “create a world where you could get advice for getting rid of people who really deserve it.”
Murder Your Employer is illustrated by set designer Anna Louizos, with an elaborate map to the campus that Holmes says he would like to expand with each book: “Like Disneyworld—‘We’ve added a new attraction!’ ”
Holmes’s editor, Simon & Schuster CEO Jonathan Karp, has been a fan of Holmes’s music since he was high school, starting with “The Piña Colada Song.” Karp went on to buy all of Holmes’s albums and memorize their lyrics. (He sang some for me during our interview.) “Rupert’s aim, his driving point as an artist, is to help people escape,” he notes. “He’s said, ‘If I can make you forget about your root canal, I’ve succeeded!’ ”
In 1985, Karp, working as a reporter, interviewed Holmes for the Washington Post. “The Mystery of Edwin Drood had not yet opened at Joe Papp’s Public theater, but Rupert had written the book, lyrics, music, and orchestration, which is very unusual,” Karp says. “When I asked him where he found the confidence to do it all, he said, ‘I’m faking it! Everyone is faking it!’ which gave me confidence whenever I thought I couldn’t do something.”
When Karp came to Random House as an editorial assistant in 1989, Holmes was the first person he contacted, asking if he’d like to write a book. There was no answer for years, but when Holmes eventually did respond, he said he would like to write a novel and published Where the Truth Lies (2003) and Swing (2005) at Random House.
Karp moved to Hachette, and in 2007, he signed Holmes to a two-book contract for North American rights. “The proposal,” Karp says, “was for a school filled with potential murderers—a finishing school for finishing people off. And the suspense was upped because if you fail, the school has to delete you. Early on in the book you know that only two of the characters will graduate. The rules are ingenious. It’s a dark and delightful read.”
When Karp left Hachette in 2010, he took the deal with him. Holmes submitted the final draft in 2020. “I read it and said, let’s go,” Karp explains, “with a small ask—expecting him to add a few lines, a scene. He took the book back and rewrote it for another year. He’s an unrelentingly careful craftsman, a great storyteller, and a great mystery writer. He’s also elusive. I’d ask him, ‘Where’s the thing?’ and he said, ‘From now on, we will refer to the book as the thing.’ I saw the book maybe once a year, but we were always in touch. Part of seeing it once a year was selfish: I didn’t want to read it too many times, I wanted to enjoy it as a reader.”
Karp put Holmes together with CAA agent Jennifer Joel. “Jon is evangelical about Rupert,” Joel says. “And Rupert and I had a lot in common: people we love, old movies, musical theater, a twist, a pun. When we met about the book, we talked about everything: the curriculum at the college, the details of the campus. It was so much fun.”
Joel read the book along with Karp. “The challenge of this book,” Joel says, “was what to leave out. Should there be a class on household poisons?”
Joel confirmed that Murder Your Employer is being developed as a TV series, and Holmes says the second book in the series, Murder Your Mate, is almost complete.
“I love this created world,” he says. “I love being there, and I expect to write one a year—for the next 26 years.”