Monday, January 01, 2007

Better Off Dead - Mary McMullen

First published 1982; cover shown is the 1987 Jove Books (USA) paperback edition.

While it was written 25 years ago, this must be one of the few "modern" mystery novels I've read in a long time... and I wasn't disappointed!

John Swain is a middle aged artist who, while beginning to attract considerable critical acclaim, isn't earning the kind of money he'd like to. When he makes a casual comment to his agent, Adrian de Lima, that a dead artist is worth more than a live one, it isn't long before Swain, de Lima and Swain's live-in lover Maggie are planning Swain's tragic (although temporary) death.

But no matter how well thought-out a plan is, there will always be unforeseen complications. Swain's 25-year-old daughter Johanna, who he deserted along with her mother when she was three years old, decides to track her father down, and meets briefly with him just months before his planned "death". A second daughter - this time illegitimate - also makes herself known, eager to get her hands on part of her father's estate.

After Swain's tragic drowning becomes known to the art world, the prices for his pictures skyrocket, and de Lima begins raking in the profits. Conveniently, Swain spent the six months leading up to his planned demise painting furiously, creating dozens of new pictures that can now be "discovered" and sold to a newly adoring public.

Safely hidden in a lonely coastal town and with his distinctive white shock of hair carefully dyed brown, Swain settles in for the necessary months of seclusion until his planned return to civilization, his amnesia story at the ready. And then someone takes a shot at Swain on his nightly walk along the beach boardwalk, and Swain realises that someone - be it de Lima, Maggie, Johanna or a homicidal maniac - wants him to stay dead on a permanent basis.

This was an enjoyable novel: fast paced, well rounded characters and a believable romance (between Johanna and Maggie's nephew, Sam) smouldering on the sidelines.

Mary McMullen (1920 - 1986) was the pseudonym of Mary Reilly Wilson, a New York-born fashion designer and advertising executive who came from a family of writers. Her mother, Helen Reilly (1891 - 1962) and her sister, Ursula Curtiss (1923 - 1984) were also prolific mystery writers. McMullen wrote her first novel in 1951 to prove to her family she could write a bestselling mystery; she succeeded, winning the Edgar Award for best first novel. McMullen then went back to the world of advertising, not writing another mystery for 23 years, when she commenced writing a book a year until her death at the age of 66.

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