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A Jury Without Peer

By Patrick Anderson,
whose e-mail address is mondaythrillers@aol.com
Monday, January 8, 2007

DUST

By Martha Grimes

Viking. 342 pp. $25.95

Ihave come regrettably late to Martha Grimes's novels about Superintendent Richard Jury of Scotland Yard. I've only read the two most recent, last year's "The Old Wine Shades" and now "Dust," the 20th and 21st in the series. That means I have a lot of catching up to do, because both of these are delightful, surprising, even magical. They begin as police procedurals -- someone is murdered, Jury investigates -- but Grimes's love of the offbeat, the whimsical and the absurd makes them utterly unlike anyone else's detective novels. I'm not going to say much about the plot of "Dust," although it's a perfectly good one, because I'd rather report on some of the byways she takes us down. The matters she touches upon include sex, female beauty, Henry James, English eccentricity, words we should avoid and silence.

As to sex, when we first encounter Jury in his apartment, a lovely woman named Phyllis Nancy, a Scotland Yard pathologist, is stepping out of his shower. Theirs is a fine romance, but it is abruptly threatened when he meets Detective Inspector Lu Aguilar, a tall, dark, passionate Brazilian who seduces him in a matter of minutes. Their lovemaking is the kind that upends the furniture and causes the people downstairs to complain -- Jury compares Lu to a hurricane. Soon the poor fellow is asking himself " Are you[expletive] insane?" Women like Lu have been making men ask themselves that question for centuries, of course, but Grimes presents Jury's distress with rare humor and style, then finds a most decisive way to resolve the romantic triangle.

Grimes provides shimmering descriptions of the women who bedevil Jury. We're told of a creature named Angela Riffley, "She was dressed in something scandalously lightweight and translucent and she seemed to leave on wings." One woman has skin "that looked untouched by anything but dew," and another simply looked "ambrosial." Jury's neighbor Carole-anne appears clad in "lemon and what looked like meringue frothing at her neckline." Sex with Lu "was turmoil, like grabbing at air and finding flesh."

Henry James enters the story because the murder victim, a wealthy young patron of the arts, has been living at Lamb House, which was once James's home in the village of Rye. This leads to lengthy discussions of James's writing ("Violence muffled by the most exquisite and civilized conversation"). Elsewhere on the literary front, Grimes skips lightly to Proust and has Jury declare of "Swann's Way" that most people "read up to the madeleine dipped in tea and then give up." We are reminded, too, that Lord Byron once called himself "half deity, half dust."

Although Grimes is American -- she lives in Washington -- she has a wicked eye for English eccentricity. Its chief embodiment is Jury's aristocratic friend Melrose Plant, a.k.a. Lord Ardry, who has a goat named Aghast and a horse named Aggrieved and who frequents a ghastly London club called Boring's, where one employee is "a small man with a face like a walnut who looked a hundred and probably was." The feckless Plant has a circle of fusty friends who say things like: "White-Winterbotham? The only time I've heard that name was in connection with a triple murder in Clapham. A grizzly affair. Are these your people?" At another level of society, Jury's assistant, Wiggins, holds forth on the relative virtues of such food chains as Happy Eater, Burger King and Little Chefs. Grimes also pays a lot of attention to children (some spunky, some disgusting) and dogs. Mungo, the fearless four-legged hero of "The Old Wine Shades," returns for a cameo appearance.

I mentioned words we should avoid. Serious students of these reviews -- I know you're out there -- may have noticed that certain oft-heard words and phrases are not used here and will be used now only for cautionary purposes. They include "famously," "early on," "pricey" and "albeit." The reasons they aren't used include logic (if something is famous, why must we be told it's famous?), a distaste for Brit-speak and sheer perversity. Grimes seems to share my odd notions. She revealed in an earlier book that she scorns another phrase on my proscribed list: "debut novel." In this one, when Jury speaks at dinner of "veggies," the irate Melrose Plant declares: "That's a word that should be driven to the ground with a stake through its heart. One more American expression that managed to make the transatlantic trip when it should have drowned."

By now, rational reader, perhaps you're demanding, "What about the bloody plot?" Well, the young man who was murdered -- the one who lived in Henry James's house -- was mixed up with some priceless paintings that had been stolen by the Nazis, and the clue that brings the killer down is a half-eaten hamburger smeared with telltale ketchup. Interesting enough, but that's not what makes the book such fun.

Finally, silence. Jury, in a country church, reflects on its value in this increasingly ear-shattering world: "The world at large was against silence, which made it all the more restful and the more necessary when one came upon it." That's also true of the original, civilized and witty novels that Grimes concocts. They truly are novel and, once come upon, they can become necessary.

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