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.

SPOILER ALERT***SPOILER ALERT***SPOILER ALERT

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. . .

22 comments:

Andy said...

Are you sure it was Roderick who pushed the two sisters off the life raft when the ship was sunk? I have read some commentary that say the pusher was Rose Ames who was the grandmother of Billy Maples on his dead mother's side. That is whose door Lu Aguilar knocks on near the end of the book. Then the question also arises who was in the car with Aguilar when the accident occurred? Was it Rose or someone else? The ending of this book was way too ambiguous to satisfy me.

Cate Ross said...

You might be right--I just got some vibe that it was Roderick, and since I was disgusted by the ambiguity, I went with it. I was disappointed in this book; there is a difference between ambiguity and plain unclear writing, and I'm sorry to say this book fell on the wrong side of that line for me.
Which is too bad, since her early books were really quite enjoyable. The curse of having to write too many books too quickly, perhaps.

Andy said...

Yes, I was pretty upset when I finished this book. I think I have only read one earlier Jury novel. I agree that the ending did cross the line from being ambiguous to being misguided.

Cate Ross said...

If you go back to her first ones, you'll get a better sample of what she can do. The Man With A Load Of Mischief was the first one, and it takes place in Long Piddleton, so there is a reason for Jury and Melrose Plant to work together. The mystery and solution are good too, with none of the nonsense of the latest two. I mean, Old Wine Shades just drags Plant in to pretend to be Nils Bohr? WTF?

I read a late Agatha Christie called The Postern of Fate, and it made no sense whatsoever. I decided that she must have been senile by then. I don't have an excuse for Grimes.

Roxymaya said...

I think the person killed in the car accident was just the driver from the other cr hit Lu's car. Was looking for more pages as I finished the book...Not clear on the ending...Rose Ames door was knocked on by Lu...could be her who pushed the kids off the lifeboats...TOO many coincidenced with all the people involved...How old is Jury? He sounds in his 40's but was an infant during the war?!?!?! I think Grimes characters got stuck in the 90's...Very disappointed in this book...and all that Henry James stuff...on and on and on...Gee! WHY??? Nothing do do with it! Jury's books were better in her earlier books. And what's wiht all the sex between Jury and Aguilar? Breaking furniture??? Him??? Cheating on Dr. Nancy? Very weird!

Roxymaya said...

I believe the person killed in the car is just the driver from the car that hit Lu's car....Very disapointed in this book... Still not sure about the ending...Is Rose Ames the one who pushed the girls from the boat? Too many coincidences between all the charaters and Jury himself is out of character...all that sex plus cheating on Dr. Nancy??? How old is he...he sounds in his 40's but was an infant during the war...Hummm....maybe all the characters are stuck in the 90's because he doesn't seem to age. Grimes earlier n=books were better than this one...I was looking for more pages when I finished this one, thought pages were missing! Very annoyed by this kind of ending. And the Henry James stuff that went on and on aand on...to what purpose?

skip vg said...

First time I've looked for an explanation of the end of a mystery. Agree with rest of comments. What did Grimes mean when Jury said there was only one possible pusher of the two little girls into the sea - could he have meant their older sister, Mrs Jessup? She was certainly possessed! But why kill Billy? Only to frame Brunner - "he's German"?

skip vg said...

First time I've looked for an explanation of the end of a mystery. Agree with rest of comments. What did Grimes mean when Jury said there was only one possible pusher of the two little girls into the sea - could he have meant their older sister, Mrs Jessup? She was certainly possessed! But why kill Billy? Only to frame Brunner - "he's German"?

Islandgirl said...

I actually came away thinking that it was the cook who pushed her own sisters out of the boat so she would have a space but then blamed it on the germans as they wouldn't have been in the boat if it weren't for the Germans....

I'm sure whoever was killed was in the car with LU... but who it is????

I actually liked this book a lot better than the old wine shades until I got to the non ending.....

nada said...

I was never into mysteries and then I quit smoking and confined myself to bed after work for 6 weeks (I had to break the social habits as well as the physical ones). Since I lived next to the public library, I read - a lot. I had a copy of one of her earlier works laying around the apartment and finally read it and then, over 6 weeks, read the entire series.

I really enjoyed them until the last few. Thinking dogs, philosophy, etc.: bah! It's been years since i bothered to pick up one of her books. I honestly thought she was senile. Then by chance I ended up with a copy of Dust. I was actually happy, I thought "She didn't go senile, she was just very very tired." Until the ending.

What is that crap? Some sort of shrodingers cat ending? Ha ha, very funny. Why not just kill all the characters in a bus crash? That's a twist ending also, and a profound philosophic statement to make! I feel dirty and used, like listening to a joke that is really sick but you don't know it until the end and then you are embarrassed for having listened.

I would love to open a pub and call it "The under talented and yet pretentious mystery writer". Then I would hold competitions each year for the worst murder mystery and the winner each year would be a selection by Jury and get a statute that might or might not be a talking dog.

Joyce said...

After spending a number of nights reading this book, I feel quite cheated. Glad I rented it from the library and didn't pay for it. I would like a word from Martha Grimes explaining this plot. If I get closure on this book, I might try one of her earlier works.
Joyce

alex said...

This book was not written by Martha Grimes, it's the only explanation really. It not her style at all ! and all the story between Jury and Lu ! no not possible Martha did not write this book. A great pity really !

evelyn said...

i agree with all the previous comments and was hoping by logging onto this site, i would get some answers; false hope. this book and the previous "the old wine shades" were a big letdown, as i looked forward to another good read by one of my favorite writers.

Joy said...

I think Alex has something here. Has Martha Grimes started farming out the franchise, ala Carolyn Keene? Jury is so un-Jurylike. Also must say that I had decided that Rose Ames was the child guilty of pushing the sisters out of the life raft until someone suggested that it was Mrs. Jessup herself (though weren't they older than her? I've returned the book and can't check.) The end of this book reads like "to be continued." My favorite, trusted series has turned soap opera!

cheryl said...

I have loved Martha Grimes, mysteries for a number of years, and I cannot believe that she would leave Dust virtually unfinished. I don't think she had anyone in mind who could be clearly identified as the the "pusher" of her sisters off the lifeboat. I feel cheated and absolutely disappointed in the method used to end this book. What happened, Ms. Grimes? Burnout or a deadline?

abcd said...

Great to see I was just of many disappointed and confused by this book.

Have read many Grimes but not for a few years and wondered if I had got a lot less able to follow plot?

Tom A. said...

Thanks for this blog. My book on CD stopped on one of the last chapters (Mrs. Gessup and her brother were being interviewed) and had to know the end. Sounds pretty mixed up and unsatisfying.

Amy said...

It's like an epilogue was left out by accident. I just read "Dust," as I catch up with reading in the summer and I ran to get "The Black Cat," (the next book in the series), which I had also taken out of the library. I hoped it would answer the questions from "Dust." It hasn't, though I'm only a couple of chapters in. Disappointing.

NanetteHF said...

Like those posting before me, I have never read a book where I needed to go online to see what the end of the book was all about. I couldn't believe the way OLD WINE SHADES ended but DUST tops it. I have no idea who killed Billy and why. There are no connections made for me at all. What about the priest? What happened to that guy? TWO books and basically, no real wrap-up. I don't get it. WHO DOES THIS?

Ramona Lawson said...

Yes, it was a cryptic ending without actual prior threads that one could weave back together in a new (negative versus the actual picture)way. Thus, I came to this blog to see if maybe I hadn't read closely enough to see the characters and events clearly.

When I finished the book this morning, I assumed that Rose Ames was the culprit in the boat, based on her 1)admitting that she'd been "maniac-depressive" and given to bursts of aggression as a youngster (plausibility), 2) she was very fond of Billy and would be very grieved by his death (motive), and 3)it was her door being knocked upon at the (denouement-of-sorts) end. Yet, I wasn't convinced and so I came her to this blog.

Maybe--like Melrose--I am just thick and don't get it because I am still asking, "Who was it?" Maybe this is Grimes attempting a nod to Henry James' ambiguous story lines, the literary version of the Gestalt is-it-a-young-girl-or-is-it-an-old-woman.

The Jury/Aguilar hot, panting sex just seemed a nod to hot, panting sex. Although it was implied that they knew one another (unrequited lust pre-Dust) and was, perhaps, intended to lend more poignancy to the near-death crash for Aguilar. Jury didn't seem to be worthy of the yearned for "solace" of Phyllis running all the way to break it to him easy, right? Too casual and not like the usual Jury who has a conscience along with some carnal restraint.

Don't totally cry off Grimes until you read her Emma Graham series. They are far more satisfying...better prose and richer philosophy. Just get ready to bone up on(or, like me, start reading)William Faulkner.

Jody Berland said...

I loved the other Jury novels but this one went off in all directions. There are some very nasty women in this story -- the Talented Mrs Ripley, Roderick's wife -- and none of their nastiness amounts to anything in the end. The Henry James does offer an important clue about the cook, but otherwise it's dispensable. The mad passionate affair is not credible. The solution is unintelligible. The only good character is Malcolm.

RH said...

I had thought that the child on the ship was Rose Ames' daughter - Roderick's wife and Billy's mother. But then - what about her drownding? A disappointing book: ghost written?