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The Bookfair Murders

by Anna Porter

Anna Porter’s The Bookfair Murders is really two stories: a murder mystery set against a background of wheeling and dealing in the publishing game – a John Grisham with book agents instead of lawyers – and a romantic adventure of the kind Mary Stewart (as in Wildfire at Midnight) used to write. Perhaps it is Porter’s immersion in the first story, given her real-life position as publisher of Key Porter Books, that tempted her to indulge in too-lengthy descriptions of the book trade; the second story is more interesting, with a more exciting plot line.

What links the two parts is their heroines: Marsha, the publishing agent from New York, and Judith, the freelance journalist from Toronto, who know each other from their school days at Bishop Strachan. The scene shifts from the Frankfurt Book Fair, where the two murders take place, to Grand Manan Island, where the quarry of both women is Margaret Drury Carter, “the grand dame of bodice-rippers.” Marsha is pursuing Carter for a $20-million book deal, and Judith is writing a biographical piece.

What makes the Marsha story heavy going is the amount of name-dropping: the physician on hand at the first murder is Dr. Ruth, and there is a procession of references to Grisham, Barbara Taylor Bradford, Dick Francis, Tom Wolfe, Robert Maxwell, even Willa Cather, whose room on Grand Manan Carter uses to write her bestsellers. Judith’s story is easier going, at least for a Canadian audience, due to its Toronto ambience, and a very effective evocation of Grand Manan. And Judith, a single mother with a rebellious teenage son (who finally saves her life) is more appealing than Marsha, who has little personal life other than a “same time next year” affair with a rather prissy Norwegian publisher.

The Bookfair Murders is an entertaining novel, though at nearly 400 pages, a little long for a mystery. Even Dorothy Sayers didn’t let her bell-ringing or her advertising agency pad out her puzzle so far. Porter plays fair, though, in the honoured tradition of detective fiction: the clue that might give the attentive reader the solution is dropped early, and developed as the story proceeds. But the final question the reader is left with is: if the publishing game is as vicious as Porter has represented it here, why were there only two murders at the bookfair?