Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Wednesday, May 21, 2014: Maximum Shelf: Vertigo 42: A Richard Jury Mystery

Scribner: Vertigo 42 by Martha Grimes

Scribner: Vertigo 42 by Martha Grimes

Scribner: The Way of All Fish by Martha Grimes

Scribner: Vertigo 42 by Martha Grimes

Vertigo 42: A Richard Jury Mystery

by Martha Grimes

New Scotland Yard Superintendent Richard Jury returns to the page, commencing with a visit to Vertigo 42, a stylish champagne bar set atop one of the financial towers in the City of London. Jury goes to the bar to meet Tom Williamson, a friend of an old friend. Williamson's wife, Tess, a woman of independent wealth, died 17 years earlier. She fell down a flight of stairs in the backyard garden of Laburnum, the couple's home in Devon, and her tragic death was deemed the result of a misstep, as the stairs were very steep and Tess suffered from vertigo--attacks of dizziness, fainting and falling.

The theory never sat well with Tom Williamson, who remains haunted by his wife's death, as well as an incident that happened five years before she died. A random conversation with Sir Oswald Maples, a famed WWII code-breaker (and character from an earlier book), inspired Tom to re-engage with the mystery of his wife's death. Thus, he asks Richard Jury if he'd mind putting a few questions to the commander of the Devon-Cornwall police, Brian Macalvie, who originally investigated the case and was also a chum of Jury's at Exeter.

It seems that five years before Tess's death, she hosted a party for some children at Laburnum. Tess and her husband could not have children of their own; however, Tess was very fond of children and often threw parties for them. At one of these gatherings, a nine-year-old named Hilda Palmer fell into one of the drained, fairly deep, concrete pools on the grounds and died--even though the children had been warned not to play near the gardens around the pool. After the unfortunate tragedy, many people--most notably, Hilda's mother--blamed Tess for the child's death. When Tess died five years later, Tom Williamson suspected foul play, perhaps revenge, despite her death being ruled as accidental and the inquest remaining an open verdict.

Richard Jury agrees to reexamine the cold case. For the next seven days, after the meeting with Williamson at Vertigo 42, Grimes plots the journey of Jury and his dependable, likable sidekick, Sergeant Wiggins. As they travel from London through the English countryside to visit Laburnum, they seek out the five now adult surviving party guests, hoping to unearth new insights into Tess's death.

Along the way, Jury and Wiggins revisit old haunts and recurrent characters from prior novels. Their quest, however, is complicated by the death of a mysterious young woman--wearing a striking red dress and spike-heeled shoes--who falls from a tower near a pub in Long Piddleton. Was the woman's death an accident, suicide or murder? Shortly thereafter, a man is shot dead in an alleyway of Sidbury. He is later identified as the estranged husband of the "woman in red." This leads Jury to wonder if these two deaths are a coincidence, since the homicide rate in Sidbury is "minus zero."

The local police are brought in, and the mysteries--past and present--deepen with every stop Jury and Wiggins make en route to Laburnum. The two begin to question those once connected to Hilda Palmer and Tess Williamson. The children who were in attendance at the fateful party are now in their early 30s: a beautiful model from Harrods; an aspiring actress who still lives with her mother; a plain-looking, needy girl, the only married one of the bunch, who is hard to locate; a writer who would prefer to be a chef, but can't, due to expected familial conventions; and an accomplished, brilliant doctor who lives in a very seedy neighborhood. Jury and Wiggins also track down and question an adult chaperone who was at the infamous party.

In reconstructing the past it is soon revealed that everybody adored Tess Williamson, but nobody liked the deceased child, Hilda, a beastly, mean-spirited girl who took pleasure in needling others--children and adults alike. One of those interrogated remarks, "Hilda liked to hold people hostage. Her forte was gathering information and threatening to use it." In addition, it seems that some of the now-scattered guests from that day are living sordid lives and keeping secrets, making Jury's quest for the truth all the more challenging.

Richard Jury remains an engaging protagonist. He is smart, witty, lovably sarcastic, and his assured confidence keeps him wholly unafraid to follow his instincts. As in the other 22 books in the series, Grimes's fondness for classic movies, literature and cleverly named British pubs resurface in this latest installment, along with her penchant for mentioning high-end fashion and footwear. Recurrent characters, familiar colleagues and cronies from other Jury books make welcome cameos. While some of the identifying descriptions of the large supporting cast are a bit sketchy, Grimes gives just enough information to refresh old fans, and whet the appetites of new readers.

Grimes is a culturally literate writer who skillfully sets up her premise and then unravels the carefully constructed, interwoven plot via nuanced complexities. With each new discovery and red herring, Grimes leads readers deeper into dark, winding labyrinths of suspicion and doubt. In this novel, the story arc of four deaths and four victims is fortified by the mysterious presence of a stray dog, a Staffordshire terrier, that crosses Jury's path; Tess Williamson's love of poetry and how literature--including the fatalistic work of Thomas Hardy who seemed to think "destiny was irrevocable"--might've played a significant role in her life and possibly even her death; and allusions to the Hitchcock film Vertigo, which involves a fear of heights, along with obsession, betrayal and questions about identity. As one character says in regard to the filmmaker's work, "It's all about appearances. Sometimes that's what I think life is: all appearance. No reality." In the end, Vertigo 42 offers a surprising conclusion that pays homage to the best of Hitchcock, while proving, once again, that Grimes remains a master of the genre. --Kathleen Gerard

Scribner, $26, hardcover, 9781476724027, June 3, 2014

Scribner: Vertigo 42 by Martha Grimes

Martha Grimes: Every Book the Last Book

Since 1981, fans of the Richard Jury mysteries have come to expect eccentric characters, peculiar murders and a smart, cultured, analytical detective who searches for killers from a cast of disparate suspects. One of the more consistent hallmarks of a Richard Jury novel are the titles derived from clever names of actual pubs and bars, like The Old Fox Deceiv'd and The Stargazey. Martha Grimes has largely set the atmospheric series in London and quaint, small-town villages in the English countryside, but a few titles are also set in America--The Horse You Came in On in Baltimore, Md., and Rainbow's End in Santa Fe, N.Mex. Her new Jury novel, Vertigo 42, is set in London and environs.

Grimes is a writer of authority and great wit. She continues to reinvent and put refreshing new spins on the traditional mystery form. She has also penned several other books, not all of them mysteries. Her novels Foul Matter and The Way of All Fish offer funny, suspenseful send-ups of the publishing industry.

You are a U.S. born-and-bred writer, yet most of the Jury novels are set in Britain. What is your connection to England?

None, other than I've always liked it.

Do you often travel to England and the British countryside for research?

Not as often as I used to. Perhaps every couple of years now.

You've written 23 books in the Jury series. How and why do you stay engaged in this series and keep it fresh?

Because I like the characters, not simply Richard Jury and Melrose Plant, but all of the characters, including the ones readers appear to hate.

How was Richard Jury's character originally created?

As with all of my characters, Richard Jury simply popped into my mind. So did Melrose Plant. So did all of the others. There's no backstory; there's no searching for names; there's nothing prior. All I knew about the main character was that I wanted a Scotland Yard detective.

Do you have favorite characters from the Jury series? If so, who are they and why do they appeal to you?

Carole-anne Palutski (Jury's neighbor) is one because she's always intruding. She has no respect for Jury's personal "space." This amuses me. I'm especially fond of the kids and the animals. I always enjoy writing scenes with them in it. Mungo (the dog) was a total relief from boredom.

I also really like Harry Johnson because he's more clever, most of the time, than Richard Jury. Jury needs a nemesis.

The names of pubs and bars play a significant role in each Jury novel. Was this a conscious choice from the inception of the series?

Yes. I couldn't imagine better titles.

The name and atmosphere of the champagne bar, Vertigo 42, is a departure from your usual small-time pubs. Why did you make this choice?

Because of the name. How could one resist it?

How did the story of Vertigo 42 germinate?

Stories don't really "germinate" for me. I start writing and keep writing and the story goes on. Vertigo 42 started because, as I said, I was fascinated by the name. That's the way a lot of the books in the series started: because of the name.

Do you carefully plot out your novels in advance of writing them?

I never plot them out. I tried once and couldn't do it. The reason for this is (1) I can't write unless characters are moving and talking in some setting that I can see and hear, and (2) plots bore me. There is a famous writer/editor, whose name escapes me, who was approached by a student who asked him to look at a plot she'd formed for a novel. He said, "There is no plot." I loved that. A plot cannot be foretold separately from the whole story.

You studied at the University of Iowa writing program and concentrated on poetry. How and why did your writing career veer toward mystery novels?

My poetry was complicated by elements of mystery--dark houses, fleeing children, bodies, blood. The book of poetry I published is a British mystery in poetry form, or a satirical treatment of one.

Your memoir, Double, Double--co-written with your son, Ken--deals with your shared struggles with alcoholism. Would fans of the Richard Jury mysteries want to read this book?

I don't know if they'd want to read it because they like Jury. But everyone knows someone who's been touched by alcoholism, so perhaps that would be a reason to read it.

Is there a difference between writing a novel "under the influence" versus being sober?

Yes, "under the influence" is more fun. However, "under the influence" suggests some sort of drunken stupor. I never actually drank when I wrote, but that had to do with my writing schedule more than my being a good little writer. Insofar as the books are concerned, I doubt anyone could tell where the line was drawn.

If readers have not yet experienced a Richard Jury novel (pity the fool!), should they start with the first book (The Man with a Load of Mischief) or can they jump into the series midstream?

There's no need to start at the beginning. I'd suggest The Anodyne because it introduces the Cripps family and features Emily Louise Perk, who serves as a perfect example of Jury's and Melrose Plant's interactions with children. But one could start anywhere in the series, I think.

Do you have a favorite Richard Jury novel?

The Old Wine Shades because it's intelligent. I enjoyed writing about quantum mechanics and, also, it introduces both Harry Johnson and the dog Mungo. How could I ask for more?

You've been writing and publishing books for decades. Does the process get easier or more difficult?

More difficult. Much, much more difficult.

You are an esteemed and lauded "mystery writer." Do you often have the urge to write fiction other than mysteries?

I've written nine novels that are not mysteries--two books in the Andi Oliver series certainly aren't mysteries! How do readers come by this naive idea that any book that contains a mysterious death or a disappearance or something else inexplicable is a "mystery"? If that were the case, even Henry James would be thought to have written several "mysteries." I'm getting tired of the assumption that any book I write must be a mystery.

Throughout the series, Richard Jury has been rather unlucky in love. Do you think he'll ever find a true, lasting soul mate?

I thought he had. But I was wrong. I think he will. I could be wrong again.

Do you foresee a conscious end or conclusion to the Jury series some day?

Robert Frost said, "Make every poem your last poem." Every Jury novel has a note of finality to it, although the only one readers ever paid attention to was the ending of The Blue Last. Every book is the last book, in a very real sense. I have no plans for closing down Richard Jury. But life does. --Kathleen Gerard

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