Sunday, September 14, 2008

Dust, by Martha Grimes

Does this always happen? That when you find a writer you like, and read all their backlist, when you start reading the books they publish as they appear, they are disappointing? Or is it just me?

I remember reading Martha Grimes back when I was pregnant. Her first book, "The Man With a Load of Mischief" introduced her murder series, each book named after an actual pub somewhere in England. Richard Jury was the man from Scotland Yard, and Melrose Plant the idle English gentry. The two met over this investigation, and their friendship has continued throughout the series.

There was even a larger arc to these stories--Jury had some ultimately unhappy romantic plots, Plant turned out to have been an earl, but had renounced his title and gave us some hints about the story behind that decision. There was something that kept these books interesting and not just episodic.

However, the last two have been quite disappointing. I have reviewed the "Old Wine Shades" on this blog, and if I had remembered that one, I probably wouldn't have picked up "Dust." Though not as ham-handed as Old Wine Shades, Dust isn't nearly as good as I have come to expect from Grimes. To start with: "Dust?" Dust? After such memorable titles as "And the Horse You Came In On?" "The Blue Last?" "The Grave Maurice?" This is not an interesting title.

The murder happens before the first page. A young mentee of Jury's works in a hotel restaurant, and is asked to take up coffee for two to one of the hotel rooms. No one answers the knock, but the door is open, so Benny enters. The occupant is dead on the terrace. Benny calls Jury first, then the Islington police. This allows Jury to show up and fall into immediate lust with the Islington DI. She returns the feeling, and whenever they are alone, they end up smashing furniture--behavior I find very un-Jury-like.

Meanwhile, we find a string of strange coincidences among the suspects. The man who was killed was Billy Maples, whose grandfather was on the Enigma project during WWII. Billy as been giving lavishly to support artists, and has an assistant named Kurt Brunner. Billy's father Roderick was adopted by Sir Oswald Maples after being evacuated from Germany during WWII on the "Kindertransport." Roderick's real father was an out-of-control SS officer who pulled a Jewish child off the train at the last moment, returned the child to his parents, and then shot the child in the head. The younger brother who witnessed the shooting was Kurt Brunner. There is much theorizing that Kurt Brunner may have killed Billy as a way to revenge himself on Roderick's father--since killing the child would be a more painful revenge.

Billy's cook was also a casualty of WWII--she was evacuated from England, and put on a ship to Canada. Mrs. Jessup's two sisters died when the ship was torpedoed.

Roderick has found out about his true parentage, and retrieved some art his SS father had looted and gave to some relatives for safe-keeping. One of the pieces is an original Klimt, the other a Soutine. Roderick displays both pieces in his home, but claims they are reproductions. Billy has apparently found out the truth, and so he gives away money to artists in some sort of expiation of his family's past.


In the end, we find out that the waiter at the hotel killed poor Billy Maples, then set the scene to be discovered by Benny and leading police to search for the mythical second person who was to have the "coffee for two." Billy's housekeeper is the waiter's sister. She blames somebody--I think it's Roderick, but we are not told for certain--for pushing her two sisters out of the lifeboat during the evacuation to Canada. Killing Billy is still the most painful form of revenge.

But once again, this solution is terribly stretched. Jury theorizes that Jessup's sisters died from being pushed out of the lifeboat, but there is no actual testimony to that fact. In fact, Jury deduces this must be what happened based on the fact that Jessup gets hysterical and calls out her sisters' name when a table is overturned and all the food spilled off it. Not really what I would call "direct evidence."

Nor is there any actual dialogue or evidence that Roderick was even evacuated to Canada, much less was on that same ship with the young Jessup and her sisters, or in the same lifeboat. Nor is it clear why Jessup and her brother would know that Roderick was that same boy who pushed out the girls.

Much was made of the confusing fact that Billy shouldn't have even been in that hotel, since he had a flat not far away--so why take a room? Grimes does not give us the answer to that either.

We do get a fair amount of the tried and true--apparently Grimes is not allowed to write a Jury mystery without a scene of Melrose Plant and his catty friends being mean and clever while drinking at the local pub. And Plant also has to come do some secret digging, entering one of the important locales under false pretenses to give Jury the inside story. At least he doesn't have to pretend to be Nils Bohr this time.

We get glimpses of the other tenants of Jury's building, as well as an infuriating interview with Jury's boss and the station cat creeps around as well. If you have read these books, you recognize these scenes as ones that have happened before. If you haven't read these books, so that this is new, then there are other aspects that make no sense. Harry Johnson is still hanging out at the Old Wine Shades--and Jury keeps threatening him, and there is really no way to know why unless you have read that book. Jury is also still in some kind of trouble for entering a house without a warrant--wasn't that why he was on leave in the last book?

I haven't mentioned the Henry James motif yet. Billy and Kurt live in Lamb House, a National Trust property where Henry James once lived. They are tenants who keep the house tidy and open it for visitors two days a week. We get a number of references to James works, most of which I haven't read, so I didn't get the connection. If this book had been better, I might have made a point to go read those books to tease out the connections. As it is. . .

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Certain Girls, by Jennifer Weiner

My dear sister-in-law lent me "Good In Bed," Weiner's first novel and the antecedent to this book. That book starts out with Cannie Shapiro finding out that her recently ex boyfriend Bruce has written a column for a women's magazine. The column is called "Good in Bed" and his first column is "Loving a Larger Woman." That woman is Cannie.
She goes ballistic, and I gave up the book. After all, his column was basically about how he loved her more than she loved herself. And it's not like anybody who knew Cannie was "C." didn't know that Cannie was a "larger woman." I failed to see the betrayal, and thought it was a lot of fuss over not much so I gave the book back.

Then my on-line book club chose "Certain Girls." I went back and read "Good In Bed," which was better than I thought it would be. "Certain Girls" takes place 10 years later: Cannie's (and Bruce's) daughter Joy is now 13, and just coming into her own adulthood, signified by her upcoming bat mitzvah. Cannie has married Peter, the "diet doctor" she met in the first book. Peter and Cannie are deciding whether to have their child. Joy is going through the teen emotional roller coaster, and becomes convinced she was never wanted, so she runs away. In the end, Peter dies, Cannie is pregnant, Joy turns into a fabulous big sister, blah blah blah.

The book is told in first person, alternating between Cannie and Joy. Cannie is boring. She is happy where she is and doesn't want anything to change. Ever. Joy is stretching for something and not certain what it is she is looking for. Guess who is more interesting?

Joy's life becomes a quest for the truth about her family and her past. She finds the book her mother wrote, also called "Good in Bed" which is not exactly the same as the book that Jennifer Weiner wrote with that title. Cannie's book has a lot more sex in it, for commercial purposes. Joy starts trying to discover what is true and what is fiction, and what is her place in the world.

I'm not certain I can say anything better than what I posted on the online book club:

Plus, you know what? Cannie is BORING.

Peter wants a baby. Cannie is afraid it will change things.

Her publisher wants a new edition of "Big Girls" and a sequel. Cannie doesn't want to relive that part of her life, or change what she has now.

Joy is growing up. Cannie wants to still be the parent who can make things better so Joy won't change.

Joy wants to include her father, Bruce, in her bat mitzvah. Cannie is furious because she doesn't want to change how much Bruce is in their lives.

Joy wants a bat mitzvah like all the other kids are having. Cannie wants one exactly like the one she had and won't compromise.

So, all the growth and movement of this novel so far is by Joy. All Cannie does is try to stop everything. No wonder I like Joy better.
There might be some mileage in comparing this book to the earlier one: both Cannie and Joy flee their own lives and go to LA, both come "home." Both have parent issues and both books end with the birth of a baby, which changes everybody's perspectives.

That said, this is about half the book it should have been. Cannie really doesn't change, and you would think that she might have learned a couple of things about her own parents by becoming a parent herself--like no matter what you thought at the time, adults don't usually leave families because the kids weren't "good enough." There are (who knew) plenty of issues they have themselves.

Cannie also beats herself up about not being a "good enough" mother because she can't keep Joy "safe." But that's ridiculous--no one can keep anyone else perfectly safe. Just not possible.

So, while Joy grows and matures throughout the book, Cannie never does, and she should have. So there is half the book crippled right there. Add to that the rushed ending, and it seems the book should have been at least 100 pages longer. Again, only half the book it could have been.

There is no denying that Weiner has grown as a writer over the 10 years between these two books: Certain Girls is a much better book than Good In Bed, but neither will live on the the pantheon of literature. Final summation? Get these books from the library, or wait until the paperbacks are on sale--these are not keepers.