A Richard Jury Mystery
by Martha Grimes
336 pages, Viking Adult
Guest Review by Robin Duff Boone
Maybe other people read a mystery series as though each book in it were a separate, stand-alone novel. This is usually not easy to do, and in any case the die-hard fan is reading the newest in a series because they like the series. Either the detective is an appealing character, or the good writing makes the book fun to read. Maybe the main draw is the setting. In the case of Martha Grimes’s Richard Jury series, I vote for all three of these novelistic amenities.
I love the main character. Richard Jury has a fetching smile, and he has the de rigueur moody, romantic soul one wishes for in an intelligent, tall, and handsome detective. More to the point, he has red hair, which is always a plus for me, don’t ask me why (because I don’t know). These days, Grimes rarely mentions the color of Jury’s hair, though we always know Melrose Plant’s eyes are green (appositely, given his name). Maybe the flaming tresses of Jury’s upstairs neighbor, Carole-Ann, upstage the sober, settling auburn of Jury’s; who knows?
Not only do I love the main character, but Grimes also carries off successfully, at least for an American reader, the atmosphere of English places. Most of her Jury novels are set in various places in the British Isles – primarily of course London, though Jury and the others of his milieu are also likely to be spotted elsewhere. Two of the Jury novels – Rainbow’s end and The Horse you Came in On – are set in the USA, but the characters always retain their Britishness.
The biggest draw for a Grimes fan, though, has got to be her writing. Each of the Jury novels has its own atmosphere, and they tilt towards the literary. The early novels, thirty years ago, were more general, probably a bit formulaic, though always with a touch more depth or subtlety than what one might expect from genre fiction.
The reader’s sense that a mystery series is formulaic is reinforced when a series has a gimmick –title, series locales, character quirk, or the like. Sue Grafton is going to run out of alphabet pretty soon, but in the meantime, Kinsey Millhone’s adventures have spanned the letters A through U. Harry Kemelman’s Rabbi Small series covered the days of the week, and then went on to One Day and so on. Nevada Barr sets her Anna Pigeon series in the US national parks. Adam Dalgleish’s outlook is affected by his non-policing experiences as a poet. Brother Cadfael is a monk, solving mysteries in the world of the Wars of the Roses, and Dave Robicheaux hangs out in present-day Louisiana. James Melville’s Superintendent Otani books are a twofer – set in Japan, each novel in the series also has a title that riffs on a word in Japanese (The Wages of Zen comes to mind).
Grimes’s Richard Jury novels have their schtick too: Each has been named for a pub that figures in the plot of that novel – though sometimes the pub name, at least to an American ear, does not sound like a name you’d give a place. When her series began, many long years ago, that was how I thought of the novels: they were a detective series, set in England, and each book in the series was named for a pub. They do in fact fall into a category – the “cozies” genre.
The books are a bit of cozy, too, I’ll admit, particularly as the cast of eccentric characters has accumulated. Originally we had the hypochondriac Sergeant Wiggins, Jury’s partner in apprehending crime, and Melrose Plant, the aristocrat who has forsaken his titles, and his truly annoying (I consider her the most annoying character in literature) Aunt Agatha, who wishes her nephew Melrose had kept his titles. And, of course, there is Carole-Ann, who feels she owns Jury, whatever his opinion of the situation may be. Over the years, others have come along and become part of the landscape – most particularly Marshall Trueblood, and Diane DeMornay, and the other habitués of the pub in Long Pid. This little crowd, in some of the novels, have tended towards cartoonishness, but lately they are not quite so annoying to me; perhaps Grimes began to notice the comic element they provide is not worth making them annoying to her readers.
I especially like the newest additions – a preternaturally intelligent dog named Mungo, and the nefarious and almost certainly criminal man whose hospitality Mungo enjoys, whose name is Harry Johnson. These two debuted in the two most recent books prior to this latest, The Old Wine Shades and Dust. Mungo brings a sardonic silliness to the goings-on this time around, which is often more than offset by the ambiguities of Johnson, who tends to be snarky and sometimes too clever by half.
Since The Old Silent, Grimes’s Jury novels have accumulated depth and atmosphere beyond what one would expect even from an extraordinarily good series. The Horse You Came in On, taking place in Baltimore and drenched as it is in Poe, is particularly atmospheric – might one say Povian? Dust, the novel just before this one, is much imbued with Henry James, and Jamesian references intertwine themselves with the detection efforts.
If I sound a bit retrospective, it’s not surprising. Grimes’s newest, The Black Cat, had that effect on me. Mysteriously, I felt a sense of retrospection in this, her twenty-second Jury novel. The narrative throughout is sprinkled with allusions and references to the places and events of almost every one of the previous novels in the series. So, while I was reading it, I found myself thinking of past events in the world of Richard Jury. He has acquired complexity – the sort of complexity one would expect of someone whose back story is well known, as is the case with characters in series fiction, but it’s more than that. His life seems real, because his memories are a whole spectrum – sorrow, grief, laughter, trepidation, confusion, happiness, anger.
The plot of The Black Cat twists like a several-stranded braid. Three murders come to Jury’s attention that are otherwise unrelated – except that each of the women was leading a double life, and each was wearing expensive clothes and designer shoes at the time of her death. The way Jury and Wiggins and other detectives piece together the larger picture is one of the subplots. The other main subplot is dominated by Harry Johnson. Jury suspects Johnson of being the killer of at least one, if not all three, of the victims. Johnson, however, not only does not and will not help, but he also enjoys the attention he’s getting and, even more, he relishes winding Jury up.
Melrose, as usually happens, ends up in comically improbable scrapes that somehow made perfect sense in the planning stages beforehand. And additional whimsy is provided by another series staple, and an endearing one in Grimes’s hands, of an astute child observer. The opinions and information that children provide tend to be ignored, but Grimes handles this trope deftly, with a light but truthful comic touch. Of course the black cat who likes to sun itself in the back yard of The Black Cat pub is not the same cat now as it was last week; shouldn’t that be obvious? It is to Maisie. We see the adults’ viewpoint is reasonable as well: Why on Earth, or how, at the very least, could a cat be a different cat now than before? It simply does not stand to reason.
Not to give anything away, but Mungo contributes as best he can to helping solve the mysteries here, although he would be the first to agree that cats verge on total uselessness as far as helping out anyone whatsoever.
This time around, Mungo is my favorite character. He has to deal with three different cats, and if you have ever lived with cats, you will agree that Mungo’s opinions and observations about cats are spot-on. I think the cats-and-dog parts of this latest in the series are the best reason for reading it.
And, as Abraham Lincoln said, when put under duress to review a book he didn’t want to be unkind about, those who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.
I do hope the retrospection does not mean Jury and company are closing up shop. There is always another pub to visit, after all.