- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 6, 2007


By Martha Grimes

Viking, $25.95. 352 pages


It is difficult to imagine assaulting even the portrait of the august author Henry James with a sticky lollipop, yet that is one of the unlikely events that enlivens and even produces a clue in this romp of a mystery.

Charging along her path of often merry mayhem, Ms. Grimes has cooked up a confection of a plot that includes not only musings on the concept of a “vampire theme” in the writings of James but a murder, a retrospective look at Nazi atrocities in World War II and a dog called Waldo who rappels down walls whether he wants to or not.

Dogs come and go in the novels of Ms. Grimes, who seems to view them as more perceptive than some of her adult characters. These dogs have no claim to being cute. They seem to exist to contemplate the plight of man with a mixture of patience and perplexity. They are especially patient with Superintendent Richard Jury, the star of the Grimes show, whom she leads far astray in her current chronicle of his detecting.

Jury, a reserved and introspective man, is caught up in a turbulent affair that even he sees as involving lust more than love with the glamorous and tough Detective Inspector Lu Aguilar. The investigation leads them not only to bed but to Lamb House, a former residence of Henry James in the English village of Rye, as well as the darker world of Bletchley Park, where the British cracked German codes in World War II, and the harrowing history of an SS officer’s murder of a Jewish child seeking to escape from the Nazis on the dreaded “Kindertransport” that wrenched children from parents.

Ms. Grimes has a marked talent for mingling horror and humor, while using as a base a group of wealthy English who have survived the changing of their times. They are led by Melrose Plant, a peer of the realm who has relinquished his title, yet still patronizes an exclusive London club with the wonderful name of “Borings.” Scenes set in the club are small masterpieces of anachronism, as is the friendship between Plant and Jury, men whose humor and cynicism permit them to bridge widely differing social backgrounds.

The icing on the current Grimes cake is the reappearance of Harry Johnson, a sophisticated psychopath whom Jury has not yet succeeding in capturing, and who appears with jovial impertinence to dine with the detective at various restaurants of excellent reputation for food and wine. Not only is Johnson back, but so is Mungo, his mutt who made his debut in a recent Grimes novel as a canine capable of helping rescue kidnapped children while tolerating the inadequacies of his two-legged best friends. As Jury reflects at one point, he knew that dogs didn’t roll their eyes, yet he had the strong impression that Mungo was rolling his.

This is no bloody-minded serial-killer book, but a mystery laced with humor, especially in the portrayal of Henry James’ residence, its contents and those who cherished his works, who unfortunately included the murder victim, one Billy Maples, wealthy art patron and child of a mysterious background.

Jury threads his way through a collection of intriguing characters between hurling himself into bed with Aguilar while realizing he is more likely to wind up with police pathologist Phyllis Nancy.

The counterpoint of Nancy and Aguilar and their impact on Jury is nicely gauged and evidently Ms. Grimes had decided it was time the decorous superintendent shed some of his control and threw his celibacy out the window while continuing to track criminals. Her plot is perhaps more fragilely cast than usual, yet it doesn’t matter because her scenario is so entertaining.

Not to mention her continuing penchant for dogs, shaggy and otherwise. Jury thinks to himself at one point that although he doesn’t personally own one of them, he knows “the four smartest dogs in London,” including Stone an animal who lives in his apartment building and raps on his door with a paw to let the detective know he needs a place to hang out for a while. Sparky, another mutt owned by Benny, a youngster who lives under a bridge, has a special claim on Jury because of his role in saving the superintendent’s life.

But it is Mungo, the pet of the genial psychopath, who commands the attention of not only Jury but the reader. The question is whether Mungo really wants his owner to be caught.

It is Mungo who knows Harry Johnson’s darkest secrets and it is Mungo who will never betray him to the police. Except by rolling his eyes as he listens to conversation while curled under the table, of course.

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

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