A couple of years ago, I was at a mystery convention and I heard readers and writers discussing a name they didn’t recognize. One of them turned to me.
“Dana, do you know who Martha Grimes is?”
I stared at them.
“Are you kidding me? Her books are brilliant! You don’t know Inspector Richard Jury? Melrose Plant--omigod, I have such a crush on him--green eyes and Rimbaud! Her books are all named for pubs in England and Baltimore, and she’s one of the few American writers who can nail the ‘traditional British’ detective mystery. Get thee to The Man with a Load of Mischief, toot sweet.”
They must have had a panel to go to, because, as one, they nodded then bolted, looking nervously over their shoulders.
The first Richard Jury/Melrose Plant novel, The Man with a Load of Mischief, was found in a slush pile, and first published in 1981. The story centers on a series of murders, the victims of which are grotesquely displayed in the pubs of Long Piddleton. Is it the work of a serial killer? Do the murders conceal an even more sinister plot? Who, in the small town, has so much violence and hatred hidden inside?
At first glance, a New Scotland Yard detective (Detective Chief Inspector Jury), assisted by his hypochondriac sergeant (Wiggins) and an aristocrat who’s renounced his title (Melrose Plant), sounds all too familiar. I wasn’t convinced, when my then-boyfriend/now-husband insisted I read them. Within a page, though, I was hooked. By the second chapter, I was a convert, indulging in that most irritating, yet most irresistible of urges: reading the good bits out loud.
And there were a lot of good bits. Ms. Grimes honors the genre and the subgenre. Her books are witty, often downright funny, especially when subverting the conventions of the British traditional mystery. When, in The Man, we are introduced to Melrose with his aunt Agatha at the local vicarage, it is like Bertie Wooster’s revenge:
Melrose Plant regarded his aunt as the albatross which his uncle had shot down and left to hang around his nephew’s neck. Lord Robert had shot her down in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, when he had been on a pleasure tour of the United States. Agatha was an American. But she buried this as well as she could under tweed suits, walking sticks, sensible shoes, interminable plates of cucumber sandwiches ... His aunt used every pretext to appear suddenly at Ardry End to look covetously at the bisque statuary, the portraits, the Chinese and William Morris wall coverings, the Waterford, the pleasaunce, the swans--all of those appointments of the serene, stately home. Lady Ardry would turn up at all hours, in all weathers, uninvited.No dignified Honoria, Dowager Duchess of Denver, here. And if the vicar Smith rambles, is obsessed with morbid local history, and serves miserable tea (“Melrose scanned the tiered cake plate, looking for something digestible: the rock cakes lived up to their name; the Maids of Honor looked left over from Victoria’s wedding; the Bath buns must have walked”), he’s not addled. Only after a series of brutal murders does the vicar die in the library--but violently, a paper knife through the heart, face up, the blood still warm, Inspector Jury just minutes too late to save him. In other traditional stories, the vicar would have been the only victim, decently turned away, the blood already dried, no hint of his struggle--or his heroism in leaving a significant clue for Jury.
You can’t do this unless you both know and revere the genre--and are a hell of a writer. You can’t have characters who are silly or romantic or wicked (or all three), without loving and respecting them when they are at their silliest or wickedest. Otherwise, you get cardboard and cliché. Four books after The Man with a Load of Mischief, Martha Grimes began to receive critical praise, and subsequently, The Five Bells and Bladebone (1987) was the first of her Jury series to hit the New York Times’ bestseller list.
If The Man is funny, it is also sad, melancholy, at times--an intoxicating combination. Detective Chief Inspector Richard Jury is characterized by comparison with Chief Superintendent Racer:
It was not that Inspector Jury suffered under the illusion that his colleagues in New Scotland Yard were all solid with integrity and full of the milk of human kindness--the London bobby in domed hat ... or the higher-ups such as himself, appearing in neat, shiny suits ... saying ... “Merely a routine inquiry, madam.” No, they were not all cool-headed, diamond-witted upholders of law and order. But Racer contributed so little to that pleasant old stereotype. He sat there now, looking terribly county, and thinking, probably, about his dinner or the latest conquest with whom he would share it, leaving the Jurys of the world to sort out the mess.Jury is a loner, observing humanity at a distance as a cop and through the books that overwhelm his London flat. He is also lonely, and recognizes the fact in the loneliness of those around him, especially the victims. In the course of this first novel, his small circle of acquaintances is increased by two: Vivian Rivington, one of the suspects, with whom he immediately and utterly falls in love; and Melrose Plant, who becomes his unofficial assistant through The Man and the following books. Grimes describes Plant:
He was tall and pleasant-looking, dressed rather informally in a Liberty silk robe, and tousled, as if he had been pulled out of bed. What Jury noticed most, though, was the expression in the astonishing, emerald eyes over which Plant was now settling gold-rimmed spectacles. Sharp, very sharp.Sharp enough to do the Times crossword in under 15 minutes. Sharp enough to hold a chair in French Romantic Poetry at the University of London. Melrose would be insufferably perfect if not for foils in the form of various animals, drunks, children, and murderers who complicate what would be his tranquil existence. Peter Wimsey never would have tormented his old aunt so.
As enthusiastically as I recommended The Man with a Load Of Mischief (and the rest of the Jury/Plant novels) to my fellow convention-goers, I was recently reluctant to go back to a book I’d read repeatedly in my teens and 20s. As an extra bias, I lived in Islington (close to Jury’s fictional flat) during some of those years, and I feared I’d overlaid my recollection of the book’s qualities with the sentimental memories of a student alone in a strange city, negotiating the idea of a nostalgic London with its present realities.
But the book stood up, even beyond my expectations. As a crime writer, it’s harder now to read for enjoyment, but Martha Grimes doesn’t give anyone’s internal editor the chance to switch on. I’m now working my way through the series, again, with even more enthusiasm than before. Start with The Man, and I bet you’ll be scrambling for the next books.
(A final note to writers: The town of Long Piddleton is filled with artistic types, especially writers and those who would write [including Aunt Agatha]. Indeed, Grimes’ Foul Matter , a standalone set in the publishing industry, is one of the darkest and funniest books on publishing I’ve ever read.)