- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 27, 2009

THE BLACK CAT
By Martha Grimes
Viking, $39.95, 336 pages

TOO MANY MURDERS
By Colleen McCullough
Simon and Schuster, $26, 384 pages

This is murder most whimsical.

Beautiful women are shot and strangled, a detective is on the trail of a charming psychopath, and a black cat called Morris as well as a lost dog called Aggro frolic here. And of course there are Mungo and Schrodinger. If you have friends who like animals, whimsy and murder, you can’t do much more to brighten their day than put Ms Grimes‘ latest mystery in their lap.

She is following up on an earlier confection about Superintendent Richard Jury and his link with Harry Johnson, with whom he has regular drinks at a pub called the Old Wine Shades and whom he strongly suspects of murder and kidnapping. So far Jury has been unable to prove his suspicions, and Johnson, a man of great charm and no principles whatever, likes to offer a tipple of expensive wine.

It is noted that “Dickens, as history had it, drank here” but what matters to the detective was that it is Harry Johnson’s favorite place. Johnson sits there, sipping “some blood red vintage” with “a smile that put in its own claim for a patent on insincerity.”

He relishes the fact that Jury has never been able to get a warrant to search his house, despite the fact that the detective is convinced of his guilt. So Johnson simply waits for the next move in the strange game of psychological chess that he plays with Jury.

However, he doesn’t let risk impede his enjoyment of the game, even if it may wind up one day in his arrest for homicide. Beneath the table, of course, is Mungo, a dog of perception and small respect for humans, which he communicates to the cat Schrodinger, his housemate with whom he has an unusual partnership. As the companion animal of Harry Johnson, Mungo lives under no illusions. Ms. Grimes never makes the mistake of making her animals cute. Her dogs and cats exist in their own world and have a form of communication with each other but not with two-legged people who can’t grasp what is under their noses.

Now and again, Jury notices that Mungo has one paw over his eyes as he listens to what he considers the nonsense being talked above his head. In Mungo’s view, people are too preoccupied with trivia like the elaborate and unbelievably expensive shoes worn by the victims. Names like Manolo Blahnik, Jimmy Choo and Christian Louboutin - whose shoes are notable for their red soles, with price tags ranging from $600 to $800 - percolate through the plot as Jury investigates the deaths of young women with double lives. Like village librarian Mariah Cox who is also Stacy Storm, the exotic escort girl, or Kate Banks who was “the best on offer” at the escort service. They all ended up dead, and of course Jury suspects Harry Johnson.

The question is did Johnson do it? That is the mystery that is unraveled in a rollicking plot that also involves Jury’s friend, Melrose Plant, known as Lord Ardry, whose household includes a horse called Aggrieved and a goat called Aghast as well as the canine newcomer called Aggro. Seems appropriate for a man whose expensive London club is called Boring.

What more could a reader with a sense of the ridiculous ask?

• • •

That may be just the problem with Colleen McCullough’s “Too Many Murders.” Reading a mystery, the reader does expect a murder or two. But 12? In one day? In one city? And apparently unconnected?

Ms. McCullough does her best with a plot that ranges from violent death to the fear of nuclear holocaust, but the tangles are almost impossible to unravel, even for Captain Carmine Delmonico, that most engaging of detectives plunged into a morass of blood and sadism in Connecticut.

As Delmonico acknowledges, “There are gentle deaths and agonizing deaths.” He categorizes the gentle deaths as those of victims who saw it coming and died quickly. Agonizing can be applied to that of a young man who was crunched in a bear trap or the celebrity who was tortured to death in ways that the reader doesn’t really want to know about.

The trouble with all this mayhem is that you never get to know the victims. They are all seen through the eyes of the killer and of the detective clever enough to figure out that the whole thing is not just mass murder but espionage of the kind most feared during the Cold War.

There is a master spy who congratulates himself on his style of killing, writing in his journal, “I confess that I am intrigued at the prospect of killing all eleven en masse, Such a coup! It would do more than merely confuse the local police - it would bamboozle them. A drean project!”

There is no merry merry anything about this mystery.

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

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