- - Thursday, February 27, 2014


By Martha Grimes
Scribner, $26.99, 352 pages

Hit men, clownfish, alligators and slimy literary agents are the ingredients of this tasty pudding of a book that pokes fun at the publishing world.

Martha Grimes was previously best known for her classic mysteries starring a London detective and an eccentric English earl, but she has recast herself, perhaps drawing on her own experience as a satirist, targeting current publishing with its themes of 50 shades of vampires, sex and zombies.

The book begins with a wild shootout in the Clownfish Cafe in New York where killers, armed with Uzis shoot up tanks of clownfish, but not the customers. The surviving clownfish are scooped up by customers, who include Cindy Sella, a charming author from Kansas who is trying to solve her writer’s block and fight a lawsuit brought against her by the awful agent L. Bass Hess, who escaped the fish slaughter.

The fracas is complicated by the presence of two more hit men known as Candy and Karl, who are also on the track of the repulsive Hess who makes life miserable for clients, including Cindy, who never hired him in the first place. Candy and Karl have been hired by a Mafia mogul known as Joey G-C, who has called for a hit on Hess for rejecting his son’s book. However, Candy and Karl have their own way of contract killing. In this case their style is not to shoot the agent but to drive the man mad.

This is a new line of work for the hit men, notes the author. “Books had added a new dimension to their lives. Books were to die for. Literally. They were things you got killed over How would they ever have guessed the publishing world was so shot through with acrimony that they’d just as soon kill you as publish you?”

The hit men also like Cindy, who has taken to watching clownfish to help break her writer’s block. She pays $100 for an albino clownfish that she finds on Craigslist and ignores the fact that it drives her cat Gus crazy. Romping through Ms. Grimes‘ pages, is a collection of colorful characters who might have come from the pages of Damon Runyon.

In addition to Candy and Karl there is Lena bint Musah, an exotic creature who carries a dagger in her silver brooch and can discourse with authority on peppermint fish worth $20,000. Or even better, the Asian arowana. Also, there is Aunt Simone who used to be Uncle Simon and now lives in the Everglades where she mixes giant vodka martinis. She is the former uncle of the wicked Hess, who hopes to be her heir. The most hilarious scene in the book occurs when Hess is captured by an alligator that takes one taste and promptly throws him back in the boat.

Candy and Karl are in cahoots with Joe Blythe, a fellow contract killer who prefers knives to guns. It is a point of pride with him that he doesn’t have to kill if he is fast enough at throwing a knife. He is also blue-eyed and charming, and very protective of the pigs he keeps on his farm. However, he enjoys his day job, too, so he joins the little group dedicated to the protection of Cindy. Cindy is enchanted by Joe but not enough to run away with him to his pig farm.

On the other hand, after she conquers her writer’s block, she buys a miniature pig and names it Herman. It sits on her sofa with Gus the frustrated cat, watching the clownfish lounge on a pink anemone in their new little tank. There is also Oscar, the clownfish owned by Candy the hit man who worries about its diet. Oscar is carnivorous, and there he is, hanging out in his fancy tank, being cosseted by a killer. “Oscar endures,” declares Ms. Grimes.

In the end, without giving too much away, the awful agent is condemned not only to reading an entire wall of rejected manuscripts but turning them into bestsellers. When Hess denounces his fate as a pig’s breakfast, Joe throws a knife at him. That is almost the end.

In a hilarious serial epilogue, Ms. Grimes foresees the literary rise of robot books dominated by something called the “Skunk Ape Trilogy,” the smash surprise of literary things to come. It is written by an author named Donny Thugz, and is published by the “new and forward looking” Humpback House whose imaginative chief executive officer turns the skunk epic into dioramas set in an alligator cave where the Skunk Ape is said to reside. Cardboard tourists, sometimes dismembered, are part of the gory entertainment for players.

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

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