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Book review of 'The Black Cat,' by Martha Grimes

By Patrick Anderson
Monday, April 5, 2010; C08

THE BLACK CAT

A Richard Jury Mystery

By Martha Grimes

Viking. 323 pp. $25.95

I set out to review some other novel this week, a serial-killer saga, but its plot was unlikely and its prose was clunky, so I tossed it, knowing that Martha Grimes's 22nd Richard Jury mystery was waiting in the wings. Grimes can be many things -- literate, lyrical, funny, funky, discursive, bizarre -- but she is never clunky. Sometimes, reading her, you think you've stumbled on an improbable fusion of Agatha Christie and Monty Python, but that, in moderation, is not an unpleasant experience.

Grimes's plot shows signs -- possibly misleading -- of being a serial-killer story, too, in that three young women who work for London escort services are shot to death over a period of weeks and Chief Superintendent Jury of Scotland Yard is on the case. But his investigation fades into the background as Grimes explores other, possibly related matters of equal interest to her, which include expensive shoes, talking dogs and cats, and the endless confusions of life on this planet. This is, let it be said, a monumentally whimsical novel. You may find it bewildering at times, but if you are partial to whimsy it will dazzle you.

Take the dog and the cats. The incomparable dog Mungo has appeared in previous Jury novels. Grimes takes us inside Mungo's mind, and he proves to be a remarkably crafty and cynical fellow. Mungo tolerates humans but has a low opinion of us: "Are all humans so self-entranced they just don't see what's going on around them?" Mungo, you see, can communicate. He often exchanges views with a cat named Morris, not via speech but telepathy. They have information about one of the murders and try hard to convey it to Jury, but we humans are just too dense to receive their messages. And the cats? There are three of them, all black; one is Morris, one is Schrödinger, and the third one's name is a mystery to me, as is the reason that various people keep kidnapping (catnapping?) them and replacing one with another.

The shoes? Well, the young women who are killed, the escorts, were all given to wearing expensive shoes. There are long discussions of the relative merits of Manolo Blahnik, Christian Louboutin and Jimmy Choo as well as of strappy sandals, skyscraper heels and even fuzzy slippers that a working girl might wear at home for comfort. Might some women kill for such magnificent shoes? Quite possibly.

Grimes has fun with names, too. The escorts use names like Stacy Storm and Adele Astaire (do they know about Fred's sister?), and when a grumpy bartender is named Sally Hawkins we must guess whether it's in tribute to the radiant star of the movie "Happy-Go-Lucky" or was picked at random. At one point we're in a pub with the three M's: Mungo the dog, Morris the cat and Melrose (Plant), Jury's loopy aristocratic friend. Plant, by the way, has a horse named Aggrieved, a goat named Aghast, a dog named Aggro and -- the unwitting inspiration for all this -- an aunt named Agatha.

Various characters return from earlier Jury novels. His sexy, ditsy neighbor, Carole-anne, turns up to flirt and be flirted with and we ponder comments like: "Carole-anne was filing her nails with a huge four-grain file. Jury had suggested she bake it in a cake in case he landed in the nick." Once again, Jury is trying to make a case against a dapper killer named Harry Johnson ("Harry would steal a blind beggar blinder"); they meet often in a pub to drink expensive wine, exchange threats and discuss Proust.

On the way, Grimes tosses off delightful lines. Someone making tea pulls the plug on an electric kettle "which was roaring like a bullet train barreling into Kyoto." In a fancy bar, someone sips an oddly colored drink, "one of those boutique martini mutants that were popular among drinkers who didn't like martinis." At her own sweet pace, Grimes returns at last to her murder mystery and clears things up nicely enough, although she admittedly borrows her plot device from a classic movie. By then, you won't mind. Mostly you'll recall being immersed in whimsy as in a pool of honey. At one point, out in the English countryside, "A couple of drunken butterflies were sorting through the yellow blossoms of some shrubby plant." Whereupon, "Why, Jury wondered, lifting his face toward the sky, couldn't humans get drunk on air?" But of course we can. Sometimes we can even get high on whimsy.

Anderson reviews mysteries and thriller regularly for The Post.

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