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March 3, 1998

Books by Kay Kimbrough

Martha Grimes
Henry Holt, New York, 1997, $24.00.

Martha Grimes' latest Jury mystery keeps the reader in suspense until the conclusion. Two murders take place on the Lincolnshire Fens, the victims having only one connection. Verna Dunn, actress and trouble-maker, is the ex-wife of Max Owen, the self-made wealthy owner of the Fengate estate, and Dorcas Reese is a maid in Owen's kitchen. Verna is shot with one of Owen's shotguns; Dorcas is later garroted. The suspect, Jennifer Kennington, is a close female friend of Richard Jury of Scotland Yard, a friend he would like to be more than a friend. Jury must deal with the Lincolnshire police in his efforts to defend Jennifer from the charges the police make.

As in all Grimes' novels, the characters and the settings entertain as much as the plot. Max Owen collects antiques and art compulsively, but his treasures are displayed in an awkward and ostentatious manner, giving his house an eerie, almost macabre, atmosphere. He has a nice wife, Grace, who has lost a hemophiliac son in a riding accident a few years ago. The murder victim, Verna, was visiting the Owens at the time of the son's death. There is the possibility that Grace, too, has a motive for killing Verna since she is possibly a psychopath who would be capable of upsetting Grace's son by her manipulations.

The curious relationship between the Owens and Verna is not explained, but there is a mystery inside the mystery there. Why would a vicious ex-wife be welcome at Fengate? Max Owen claims that his present wife Grace likes her well enough, but Grace does not concur in this opinion, giving Jury more evidence to consider Grace as suspect.

The number of suspects multiplies as the plot thickens. Major Parker, Owen's neighbor, is landed gentry, gourmet cook, and Dorcas' willing teacher of culinary arts. The artist Jack Price lives on Owen's estate so that he can create in a peaceful and free environment. The former employee of Parker who was accidentally blinded on the job lives with his young niece Zel. The prime suspect, Jennifer Kennington, and Grace Owen are both vague characters with clear motives for murdering Verna.

The working class characters include the Fengate cook, her husband the gardener, and Dorcas' family members, including her Irish father who reads the classics aloud with a wonderful voice, while being completely unaware that he should be impressed by classics. Dorcas' Aunt Maddy, who genuinely loved Dorcas, provides the catalyst that produces one of the major clues to the mystery.

Beneath the comic surface populated with eccentrics from every layer of British society, there is a tragic theme. The two murder victims present two extremes in the human spectrum. Verna had everything anyone could want: beauty, intelligence, and talent. Dorcas, on the other hand, had the bad luck to be unattractive, to have limited intelligence, and to possess no talent at all. Verna's viciousness is so extreme that she is mourned by no one, while Dorcas does have family and friends who grieve for her. Both, however, have played a part in their own destruction. Verna has made enough enemies to suggest an entire army of suspects, and Dorcas has lied about being pregnant to get herself a husband, the fiancÚ she was meeting when she was murdered. The mystery of the alleged father of the imaginary baby is the key to Dorcas' murder, but there are no clues to help solve it.

Jury's friend, Melrose Plant, provides comic relief. His Aunt Agatha has her own little manufactured drama, a play within a play, going on in the background of the murder mystery, a drama that involves going to court and suing an innocent victim of her venom. This story adds nothing to the novel; it is meant to be amusing, but Aunt Agatha comes across as nothing more than a mean old woman, not an interesting eccentric. The mystery is too engrossing to be interrupted by a contrived side plot.

Melrose himself is more than valuable in the story. Upper class, wealthy through inheritance, he leads an idle life, helping his friend Jury when asked. In this novel he is interested in a new neighbor living at Watermeadows, the estate sharing a wooded area with Plant's estate, Andry End. This potential love interest actually gives him the idea that enables Jury to solve the mystery. Melrose is upper class but modest. Admittedly lazy and pleasure- loving, he confesses," Actually, I lead a comparatively quiet and generally worthless life." At the same time he is aware of his value to Jury in investigating cases. He provides the melancholy and too serious Jury with an interesting foil, a cheerful contrast.

The British class system is satirized in all Jury novels. Martha Grimes, an American, is particularly good with this theme. The distance she comes armed with as an outsider permits her to be objective rather than judgmental. The characters are treated as individuals rather than as stereotypes.

Grimes is expert at creating a setting with the proper atmosphere for murder, settings that the British Isles generously supply. Her description of the murder site, the Fens, is bleak and ominous: "The chalky sky took on the glow of pearl, and the sun, smoking behind a haze of cloud, threw off a light of burnished pewter. Mysteriously lit, it was as if the watery, colorless land refused drabness, stood determinedly against diminishment."

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