- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 6, 2006

THE OLD WINE SHADES

By Martha Grimes

Viking, $25.95, 352 pages

REVIEWED BY MURIEL DOBBIN

This is a shaggy dog mystery, in which an observant mutt called Mungo gives a Scotland Yard detective a run for his money.

In her 21st book chronicling the life and investigations of Superintendent Richard Jury, Martha Grimes introduces two new characters who fit admirably into her stable of eccentric English players. One is Mungo, “the dog who came back,” and the other is Harry Johnson, who may turn out to be a latter-day Professor Moriarty to Jury’s Sherlock Holmes.

A riveting storyteller and a man with a passion for quantum mechanics, Johnson is imperturbably self-confident. His back is rarely against the wall and when reality comes too close, he leans on his remarkable powers of invention. Mungo and Johnson are scene stealers, and the reader gets the feeling that they are two of a kind.

Ms. Grimes has always leaned on wry humor, especially in her rendering of Melvin Plant, otherwise known as Lord Ardrey, Jury’s aristocratic and wealthy sidekick. He contemplates crime solving with a covey of fellow eccentrics in an English village that would have met all of Agatha Christie’s expectations. That’s when he is not sitting in his wonderful anachronism of a London club called Borings with its regiment of members snoring the days away in leather armchairs.

But the significant pawprints in this plot are made by Mungo. Ms. Grimes doesn’t make the mistake of making the dog too cute or endowed with unlikely physical or mental capacities. He is portrayed as no more than a sensible animal who pays attention to what is going on around him and knows trouble when he sees it or smells it.

The reader is made privy to the thoughts of the dog as he lies beneath a barstool in a London pub and under tables in assorted animal-friendly restaurants, listening to the lies being told above his head and marveling at the denseness of humans. His head is usually propped on the detective’s foot, but Mungo does his best to alert him by poking his head out from under the tablecloth as a signal, often to no avail.

It may stretch credibility, however, that Mungo should rely on a cat named after a physicist called Schrodinger. He amuses himself by hiding Schrodinger’s kittens from her in the house where they live together, and occasionally gets a feline boff on the nose for his impudence. Yet it is his alliance with the cat that leads to the rescue of two victims in the course of dramatic developments. There is a plot within a plot, which Superintendent Jury follows almost reluctantly — especially as he has become embroiled in it unofficially while on suspension from duty as a result of not following bureaucratic regulations in his last murder investigation. The latest adventure begins when he walks into the Old Wine Shades pub and encounters Johnson, who tells him the strange and intriguing story of his friends who disappeared nine months ago while reviewing rural property.

What makes it even odder, says Johnson, is that their dog came back. Mungo, of course, is the dog, and he knows the truth. He can’t talk but his thoughts are succinct, especially when the detective gets distracted by red herrings tossed in his investigative path.

As Jury’s curiosity rises he dines more often with Johnson, who has an inexhaustible supply of recommendations for good pubs and restaurants, all of which welcome Mungo. Inevitably, a corpse is discovered in the strangely sinister country house where tea is set without anyone to drink it.

One of the charms of Ms. Grimes is the vignettes of people with whom she peppers her plots, particularly the odd, elfin children. There seems always to be a mysterious child who knows more than he or she lets on about local goings-on, and who holds a vital clue to the identity of a killer. Mungo and such children are kindred spirits, which is why it is predictable that the dog will come back in future Grimes books.

The character of Harry Johnson is equally intriguing, since he emerges as an erudite and charming gourmand. He raises as many questions as he answers in the mind of the Scotland Yard man. You have the feeling that Johnson and Mungo will reappear in Jury’s future crime-solving life. The trail of pawprints which precedes chapters in this book might be taken as a preview of coming events.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and The Baltimore Sun.

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