- - Friday, September 5, 2014


By Martha Grimes
Scribner, $26, 336 pages

There is Aghast the goat, Aggrieved the horse and Aggro the dog, all property of Melrose Plant, the former Lord Ardry, who is a member of an exclusive London club called Borings and also a friend of Inspector Richard Jury of Scotland Yard — and, of course, there are murders.

Martha Grimes specializes in British eccentric humor and gets away with it. Her mysteries are wry in tone, and she manages to write about animals without descending into cuteness, even with a dog called Mungo that belongs to a psychopath whom Jury hasn’t managed to capture yet.

This is a tale of murder in flashback, because the current death is linked to killings that date back 20 years. Jury finds himself engaged in finding out why and whether the wife of an old friend, Tom Williamson, fell down the same flight of stairs that caused the demise of a wicked little girl called Hilda Palmer. A game of hide-and-seek was in progress at the time that Hilda went hurtling down the steps to her death, and as far as Jury can find out, none of the other children was upset about it, especially since Hilda was spiteful and cruel. Only her mother complained that Tess Williamson was responsible, but nobody seemed to take that seriously. It was not until Tess fell down the same steps and died that her husband became haunted by the suspicious that this was no accident, and that is why he seeks the counsel of Jury years later.

The story opens at a bar called Vertigo 42, which is in keeping with the author’s longtime habit of naming her books after British pubs, and Jury offers to reopen the inquiry as a favor to his old friend. Ms. Grimes pays literary tribute to Alfred Hitchcock’s classic suspense movie “Vertigo” in telling the story of a lovely old house in the English countryside and the secrets it contains. One of them is a letter from Tess to her husband, which Jury finds, of course, and which provides a clue to what happened that day in the past. Far from coincidentally, there is a new murder that links the present to the past and, oddly enough, there is present a dog called Stanley who is found beside the body of a woman in a bright red dress who has fallen or been flung from the top of a tower. Jury decides that Stanley — whom Lord Ardry wants to call Agape — is a potentially crucial piece of the puzzle, and the detective applies his usual investigative skills to resolving the strange situation.

In between, he visits and dines with Plant, with service provided in Ardry End, mansion of the family, by Ruthven who is a butler straight out of “Upstairs, Downstairs.” He insists on addressing Plant as “milord” despite the fact that Plant has rejected the title except when he needs it to assist in a criminal inquiry. Jury and Plant are an engaging pair as they exchange tart comments about each other and how they live — worlds apart — and how they like it. The plot is also embellished with descriptions of beautifully cooked food and meals in the dusty leather armchair atmosphere of Borings, a club where members read and drink and nap and hope the next serving will be better.

The plot can hardly be described as tense, and even as Jury closes in on the truth and the killer, there is always time for some good wine and talk at the Old Wine Shades, which is also the favorite hangout of Mungo the dog and his owner, the psychopath whom Jury finds useful company and also potentially someone to keep an eye on. The author’s eye for English country detail is clear in her portrayal of Laburnum, the beautiful house of gardens and death and scraps of lost letters tucked beneath a silken rug.

Ms. Grimes hits her stride in the kind of mystery she writes best perhaps because she seems to enjoy it more than others. What is important is the reader enjoys it as much as she does, and even Jury seems more cheerful than usual as he spends his holiday tracking down unhappy time and crimes of long ago.

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

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