At one point in "The Way of All Fish," Martha Grimes describes the "dreadful ... punning titles that seemed to turn up on slews of mystery series." Ms. Grimes, a Pittsburgh native now 82 and living in Bethesda, Md., is obviously making fun of herself, as the title of her latest novel illustrates. She also despises far-fetched plot devices, misuse of parentheses, cliched phrases and all sorts of bad writing that pervade today's crime fiction.
Ms. Grimes is best known for her successful Richard Jury series, but the present book is not a mystery at all. It's the second in a new series that began with "Foul Matter," each book an irreverent send-up of the evils of the New York publishing industry. Most of these evils are the deeds of unscrupulous agents, editors and publishers, but the authors themselves are also not immune from Ms. Grimes' withering pen.
At the beginning of the story, "two stubby hoods like refugees from a George Raft film" invade a restaurant aptly called the Clownfish Cafe, take out Uzis and shoot up the owner's eponymous fish tank, while customers watch the 30 or 40 odd fish within "pouring forth on their little tsunami of water and flopping around in the puddles on the floor." No one in the restaurant is hurt, but gunfire is exchanged by the two George Rafts and a pair of lovable assassins called Candy and Karl, who engage our affections because they will not do a hit just for the money. They will take on a job only after they are convinced that the victim deserves to die.
Also in the cafe is Cindy Sella, a young novelist suffering from writer's block. Her fictional heroine, Lulu, is stuck in a car, unable to organize her thoughts and paralyzed by Cindy's own indecision as to where to take her plot. "Writing fiction isn't a picnic," she says (another cliche).
Worse yet for Cindy, she is being sued by her ex-agent, L. Bass Hess (a fishy name), who wants to collect a commission on her previous novel, even though he did not represent it, as she had fired him and taken on a new agent before it was written.
Several of the cafe's patrons, including one of the assassins and Candy, decide to save the floundering fish on the floor by each taking one clownfish home in a bag full of water. Both Cindy and Candy become abnormally bonded to their fish. It turns out that clownfish are relatively rare. Some varieties may even be protected species.
When Cindy attempts to purchase a second clownfish to keep her first one company, she gets involved with a raunchy group of 20-something ne'er-do-wells who turn out to be useful to her in ways she never could have imagined.
When the assassins learn of Cindy's plight with her lunatic former editor, they want to kill him but decide against it, because Cindy would obviously become the prime suspect. Instead, they join forces with a successful writer, represented by Cindy's current agent, to drive Hess out of New York City permanently.
In terms of plot, the remainder of the book is devoted to the mischievous pranks the group devises with which to torture the vicious Hess and frighten him away without actually killing him. They include, among other things, a conflict in the Everglades with a fake alligator, trumped up visions of a burning bush in Central Park and a woman in white -- a la Wilkie Collins -- in an automobile junkyard, a skirmish with an expert knife thrower who manages to barely miss Hess several times, and a scary seance that never gets off the ground.
There are numerous Pittsburgh references, from Shadyside to Sewickley, and a gratuitous but interesting description of one character's visit to The Andy Warhol Museum -- especially compelling for Ms. Grimes' personal take on the museum's contents and ambiance. Most of her descriptions ring true, although she errs in calling the Sixth Street Bridge "one of the several that joined the South Side to the North Side."
She is more on the mark writing almost poetically that PNC Park is "so perfectly positioned in [the Allegheny River] basin that it looked done by a master landscaper."
Author Grimes drops the search for the original restaurant shooters. We never learn who the two George Rafts are, so what mystery there might have been is never solved. Logic is not an important element in this narration. The author does, however, expand on the negative characteristics of those who control the book publishing business in hilarious and excruciating detail.
Far more than the fictional Cindy vis-a-vis her unscrupulous agent Hess, it is the real Ms. Grimes who extracts the ultimate revenge on her professional antagonists.
Martha Grimes will read from "The Way of All Fish" at Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont at 7 p.m. Thursday. She will do a Q&A and sign copies of the book. The event is free, but reservations are encouraged. Call 412-828-4877.
Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor.