Hit men with terrible aim end up taking out an aquarium at a New York restaurant in Martha Grimes’s new satire, “The Way of All Fish.” Among the diners who try to rescue the gasping clown fish are Cindy Sella, a novelist having a lousy year. Two other hit men on the scene, Candy and Karl, also help mop up the mess. They’re the Publishers Weekly-reading killers we last saw in Grimes’s 2003 satire, “Foul Matter.”
This time around, Candy and Karl are at the Clownfish Café doing reconnaissance work on a potential target: L. Bass Hess, Cindy’s ex-agent and the man responsible for her troubles. Hess is suing Cindy for a commission on one of her novels that he didn’t even represent. Despite the spuriousness of the case, Cindy’s lawyers are doing a poor job of defending her.
“Lawyers to the right of her, lawyers to the left, lawyers in front, lawyers behind,” one character remarks. “Is there a vision of hell, even in Dante, that could possibly compete with that?”
Candy and Karl are among those moved by Cindy’s plight. You see, they have scruples, as well as a taste for literature. They only take on clients who, in the classic Texas defense, need killing. But they can’t employ their usual methods because if Hess turns up dead, Cindy would be the No. 1 suspect. Instead, they become part of an elaborate scheme to drive Hess crazy. A bestselling writer, a junkyard operator, an alligator wrangler, a Vegas magician and a Malaysian con woman are among the crew who band together to rescue the bland but likable Cindy. The story travels from New York to the Everglades to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to a monastery in ever more hilarious efforts to make Hess pay.
“The Way of All Fish” is completely different in tone from Grimes’s Richard Jury mysteries, and fans who haven’t read “Foul Matter” might need a few pages to catch up. Publishing also seems a less ripe target for satire than it did back in 2003. In the decade since “Foul Matter” appeared, someone seems to have taken out a hit on the entire industry.
But Grimes, who was named Mystery Writers of America Grand Master in 2012, has packed in plenty to amuse readers, from her ever-spiraling plot to the motley characters to allusions to classic mysteries by Dorothy L. Sayers, Edgar Allan Poe and Wilkie Collins. “Yeah sure,” Karl remarks about a writer whose L.A. private eye is billed as being “in the great tradition of Raymond Chandler.” “Only guy that writes in the great tradition of Raymond Chandler is Raymond Chandler.” (Hard to argue with that.)
Hess’s final comeuppance is particularly delicious. For bookworms and mystery fans, “The Way of All Fish” is a goofily offbeat delight. Just don’t follow Cindy’s example and put your clown fish in a vase of tap water: Marine fish — and unethical agents — die in fresh water.
Zipp reviews books for The Washington Post and the Christian Science Monitor.
On Tuesday at 7 p.m., Martha Grimes will be at Politics & Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington.
By Martha Grimes
Scribner. 341 pp. $26.99