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My creative-writing undergraduates have never heard of “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” but they know all the words to “Escape (The Piña Colada Song),” that staple of soft-rock stations around the country, about a bored married couple who rekindle their love through “the personal columns” in the local newspaper.
Rupert Holmes, who composed and sang the 1979 megahit and perennial earworm, might not be surprised. But he’s been up to a lot since, and he prefers to focus on current projects. This week he releases “Murder Your Employer,” the first novel in a planned series set at the McMasters Conservatory for the Applied Arts. It’s a funny, fast-paced, flip-the-playbook mystery in which three ordinary citizens are trained in murder on a luxurious hidden estate, then sent out into the world to carry out their “deletion” assignments. (No one at McMasters ever says “kill” or anything in such a vulgar vein. Although they do know a lot about accessing veins.)
Plot twists are nothing new for Holmes, whose career encompasses everything from his early Top 40 triumphs (“Escape,” yes, but also “Him” and “Answering Machine”) to songwriting for Barbra Streisand and composing Broadway’s first choose-your-own-adventure play, 1985's “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” He proceeded to collaborate with Jason Alexander on the AMC series “Remember WENN” and wrote a few novels before embarking on the current series. Holmes can clearly do anything, or at least try it. Why, at 75, is he focused on books?
“It’s a huge difference,” says Holmes, speaking from his home office in Cold Spring, N.Y., with its floor-to-ceiling custom bookshelves carefully curated — a shelf for Agatha Christie’s oeuvre, one for Robert Benchley, one for childhood favorites and so on.
“First of all, reading is a one-on-one experience. You write for an audience of one. It’s a very intimate relationship. You’re basically taking someone into your confidence, even if you are playing a confidence game with them. On Broadway, I have to make thousands of strangers laugh. On TV, millions. But a book is just for one person.”
You can also do “much more humor” in a book, he says, without playing to the back of the room. “You don’t have to stop every moment to see if a bit works. You’re playing for a much more subtle sense of comedy with a reader.”
With what is perhaps a subtle nod to his hit song, Holmes says of his books: “I tried to make them escapes. And with this McMasters idea, which I wrote during COVID isolation, I wanted people to be able to open a book and open a door, basically.”
The turn to books came long before COVID, however, and it provided an escape for Holmes from a much more personal loss. Just after “Edwin Drood” won five Tony Awards, his 10-year-old daughter died suddenly of a brain tumor.
“I don’t want any of your readers to ever know what it’s like to lose a child,” says Holmes, choosing his words carefully. “But after we lost our daughter, something very strange happened to me, and it did change what I did next. For a period of time, I could not write music. There’s no way to defend yourself against the emotions of music. Words are concrete, while music is abstract. I couldn’t go back to the piano and play music. It was too heartbreaking. So I turned to writing.”
He realized that a comic thriller would give him back control. “No one would die until I decided they would die.”
His latest endeavor continues in that mode of comedic escapism; its fantasy academy is laid out like a combination of Hogwarts, Downton Abbey and a "White Lotus"-style resort. While Holmes “basically lifted the campus block by block from a wonderful estate in the north of England,” he was also inspired by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis’ “glorious” purpose-built seacoast town of Portmeirion, in Wales.
Holmes’ own environs played an important role in the McMasters universe too. He not only lives in the Hudson Valley; he grew up there, son of a retired Army sergeant and a transplanted Englishwoman. “It’s something like the Scottish Highlands,” he says, “if not as deep, and we have all these great mansions up here, from Boscobel to the Vanderbilts’ summer place. The luxury of those places is our own American ‘Upstairs, Downstairs,’ as my friend Bob Shaw says. He designed the set of ‘Edwin Drood,’ and he’s currently the set designer for ‘The Gilded Age.’ Pure eye candy.”
Production is another of Holmes’ polymathic interests. Having spent a great deal of time in Los Angeles, he integrated Hollywood into “Murder Your Employer.” A character named Doria Faye has chosen to “delete” her loathsome producer boss, a man not entirely unlike Harvey Weinstein, whose power allows him to manipulate scores of women onto his casting couch.
Since turning to books in the wake of unbearable tragedy, Holmes has worked his way back to the artifice of performance. Slowly, through working on the scripts for “Remember WENN,” which often required faux ad jingles and underscoring, he returned to composing. He even found a way to write about his daughter in his second novel, “Swing,” in which a big-band musician has lost a child. The inspiration for that book seems obvious; Holmes’ father graduated from Juilliard at 17 and conducted a World War II Infantry Division band.
But what inspired "Murder Your Employer: The McMasters Guide to Homicide"?
Holmes laughs. “I was in a bookstore and noticing that there is now a do-it-yourself guide for absolutely everything, including tiny houses and tattoos," he says. "The latter sounds like a horrible DIY project, by the way! As a mystery writer, I thought, 'No one’s done a homicide guide for dummies. What would that look like?' I was ready to build a world entirely of my own making, with its own rules too. I made up the Four Inquiries: Is this murder necessary? Have you given this person every single chance on earth to redeem themselves? Will anyone mourn this person’s loss? And, finally, will the world be a better place without them?”
The challenge, Holmes says, was to make his protagonists sympathetic. “I wanted to give all kinds of readers characters to identify with so that they could be invested in this adventure,” he says. “Because if someone’s fun to be with, you can forgive almost anything they do.”
Patrick is a freelance critic, podcaster and author of the forthcoming memoir "Life B."
Rupert Holmes will be in conversation with Jason Alexander at Barnes & Noble at the Grove on Thursday, March 2.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.