Whether or not publishers would kill for a best seller is debatable; certainly none of them would be willing to die for one. But that's the scenario veteran Canadian editor Anna Porter has chosen for her first novel: It's a mystery that takes the reader behind the scenes in the book business, with a mysterious, disappearing manuscript leaving a trail of corpses in its wake. Whoever reads it pays the price, but in blood, not a contractual advance.
Judith Hayes, one of the two heroines of "Hidden Agenda," has left publishing. A divorced mother of two, she's now a free-lance journalist in Toronto, pulling together a profile of George Harris, for whom she once worked. Suddenly he meets his end under the wheels of a train. Was it suicide, or was he pushed?
Judith has her doubts about the former, even though that's the angle the police are pushing. After all, would a man who's preparing to attend the American Booksellers Association convention for the first time in seven years, with a few hot properties to peddle, take his own life with no warning?
So Judith turns amateur sleuth, sure that her instincts about the victim's positive state of mind will check out. But in equally classical fashion, the more she learns, the greater her danger, as she first gets wind of and then attempts to track down the fateful manuscript known only as "Untitled" by "X."
"Hidden Agenda" is agreeable enough suspense, with even a mild thrill or two. And, for those interested, it's also a mini-course in the daily gamesmanship of commercial publishing.
Here's Marsha Hillier, a Manhattan paperback editor who is Judith's best friend and soon-to-be partner in detection, reviewing her morning messages: "There were two urgents from agents demanding offers for their authors' new manuscripts today, or she could kiss her options good-bye; confirmations of appointments in London with Pan and Michael Joseph next week . . . invitations to book launchings; and a request to make a speech at a gathering of visiting Japanese booksellers . . . "
This is pretty straight stuff, in fact, rather earnest. Porter, who recently started her own publishing firm and doubtless remembers "her very first Frankfurt Book Fair" as fondly as does Marsha, views her profession mostly with an insider's complacency and no original insights.
With the Canadians cast in the role of extremely poor relations when it comes to U.S. deals -- and Porter doesn't ignore this -- she amuses herself by scoring a bit off the Australians, who "ever since Patrick White's Nobel Prize and the publication of 'The Thorn Birds' " have, alas, had to be taken more seriously.
Meeting with a visiting Australian publisher, Marsha "tried hard to evince some interest in his list, but it was full of children's titles with robust Australian settings and down-home cookbooks like 'Chinese Food the Australian Way.' She agreed to look at a big novel by a young writer and a book of baby-food recipes because she wanted to make him feel as if he had achieved something. It's a long way to come to be rejected."
The Canadians, on the other hand, are just across the border.
Even though all the others who've gotten too close to the truth perish unpleasantly, Judith and Marsha manage to outwit the powerful conspirators who are fighting exposure. (Nothing less than the future of western democracy is at stake.) Sure, these two have right on their side, but between them, it must also be noted, they down enough alcohol to give them the courage of their convictions.
Double martinis, Asti Spumante, Bloody Marys, Remy Martin, strawberry daiquiris, champagne, beer, Bailey's Irish Cream, Montrachet: This isn't a mystery novel, it's a hangover in hard-cover.
So if you're bored with whiskey-guzzling private eyes but have no desire to go on the literary wagon, consider "Hidden Agenda." Though not brilliant, it's perfectly readable, moves right along, and it's got books, booze and Mounties, too.