Grimes brings Jury to Baltimore for a mystery with roots in Maryland

July 25, 1993|By Lynn Williams


Martha Grimes


317 pages, $21

Could Baltimore, home of "The Star-Spangled Banner" and the Great American Pastime's most avid fans, actually be an English city?

Think about it. Baltimore -- at least the pop-literary Baltimore the world knows from Anne Tyler, Barry Levinson and "Sleepless in Seattle" -- is home to characters rich in Brit archetype, including daffy WASP clans and colorful proles with speech patterns even Henry Higgins couldn't untangle. Like the English, we cherish the eccentrics in our midst, and nurture a romantic sense of regret and longing under our humor and crab-thwacking bonhomie.

Baltimore is, in short, a marvelous place to be a Martha Grimes fan. And now it's a marvelous setting for a Martha Grimes mystery.

Richard Jury, hero of the series that began 12 books ago with "The Man With a Load of Mischief," toils for Scotland Yard, and the colleagues and friends that people his adventures are as True Brit as the pubs that give them their names. But his creator is an American, and a Marylander at that, and she has brought the gang here to Baltimore to solve a mystery whose roots reach across the Atlantic and deep into Maryland's history.

This time, the eponymous pub is the Horse You Came In On, a real-life Fells Point bar that, with its rowdy, football-fixated clientele, has little in common with the quirky English public houses where Ms. Grimes' plots usuallyunfold. She has some fun with the differences between British and American watering holes, and with the differences between British and American detective-story conventions. (Sergeant Wiggins, Jury's hypochondriacal aide-de-camp, is an Ed McBain buff.)

But their new turf is hardly a film noir landscape peopled with cynical private investigators. It is very much Martha Grimes country. Baltimore in winter can, after all, equal London at its most brooding, and the people -- a solemn, fanciful little girl, dowdy but oddly enchanting women, a gaggle of peculiar down-and-outers -- are satisfyingly Grimesian.

The central plot of "The Horse You Came In On" revolves around four deaths. A homeless man is killed in an alley near Lexington Market, and an ambitious graduate student is strangled at Poe's grave on the poet's birthday. Meanwhile, in a remote cabin in Pennsylvania, a young man is shot to death, and shortly afterward his aunt keels over in the Pre-Raphaelite room of the Tate Gallery in London.

Jury is on vacation, but an acquaintance asks him to look into the particulars of one of the murders. His friend, Melrose Plant, a perpetually on-vacation aristocrat, is asked to lend his amateur sleuthing skills to another.

The deaths are linked, of course, and the two men's investigations lead them across Baltimore, from a homeless shelter to the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University (where Ms. Grimes has taught). The jealousies of academe are fertile ground for mayhem, and the obsessions of three professors -- Poe, genealogy and Baltimore's quest for an NFL franchise -- provide possible clues.

The mystery, alas, isn't one of the author's best. The improbability factor kicks in early, as two characters featured in previous Jury adventures return. We met Ellen Taylor, American author of fashionably minimalist novels that nobody understands, a few years ago in "The Old Silent." Here we find her teaching at Hopkins; the murdered doctoral candidate was a student of hers. Lady Cray, elegant doyenne of "The Old Contemptibles," is a close friend of the Tate victim, and smells a rat in the nephew's unsolved death.

Well, OK -- coincidence is hardly a sin in mysteries. Less satisfactory is the revelation of the murderer, which seems poorly timed and unconvincing. If the motivation for murder is as far-fetched as it is here, the killer should seem mad or driven enough to be convinced of the rightness of his or her actions -- or evil enough that it doesn't matter. With this particular perpetrator, that's just not the case.

But while this is a disappointment, it doesn't seriously affect our enjoyment of the novel. A Grimes book is more multi-layered than your standard whodunit, and offers pleasures beyond plot. Her witty turn of phrase is as fine-tuned as ever and her characterizations as charming. An intriguing subtext ponders the nature of writing and writers; a Poe manuscript, discovered in an Aliceanna Street antique shop, is a major plot device, and writers -- real and wannabe, artist, plagiarist and hack -- abound.

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