Book Review:

'Vertigo 42': Latest Martha Grimes mystery entertains (with an homage to Hitchcock)

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You have to accept, if you read one of Martha Grimes’ Richard Jury mysteries, the author’s self-imposed conventions that pervade this entertaining series. The Pittsburgh-born Ms. Grimes sets her stories in England, but it is a literary, imagined England rooted in Victorian novels, Agatha Christie and in her latest — “Vertigo 42” — the films of Alfred Hitchcock.

Her titles in this series are taken from the names of British pubs. If you Google this one, you’ll find a champagne bar located in one of London’s highest towers.

After a four-year lapse since the last episode, Jury is now a superintendent at New Scotland Yard. He’s a sensible fellow, with keen intelligence, into his middle age by now but still handsome and charming. He’s notably unlucky in matters of the heart, however, always involved in a romance that doesn’t work out. Supposedly, in the present novel, Jury is over his infatuation with the elusive Vivian Rivington. (He’s not.)

By Martha Grimes
Scribner ($26).

It’s the characters around Jury who are really quirky, notably his sidekick Melrose Plant, an aristocrat who has given up his title of Lord Ardry. Plant lives in great luxury with his snobby Aunt Agatha, who calls herself, without any justification, Lady Ardry.

They love their animals, and dogs play part of an important subplot here. The Plant household animals are named to match crazy Aunt Agatha: the horse Aggrieved and the goat Aghast. Animal cruelty, in the form of gruesome dog fights for high profits, comes into play.

Plant and his circle of friends are most often found in an exclusive private club, aptly called Boring’s. I find the recurring Melrose Plant element in Ms. Grime’s Jury novels to be affected, spurious and silly, but it has become part of the package. I’d prefer just to get on with the storyline, but it must be said that dyed-in-the-wool Jury fans enjoy this loopy bunch, and Plant does occasionally contribute to solving the mystery. There are actually fewer Melrose Plant scenes in “Vertigo 42” than in some previous episodes.

Then there are Jury’s colleagues at the Yard, chief among them the hypochondriacal but very competent Sgt. Alfred Wiggins and the area commander Brian Macalvie. The list goes on with Jury’s neighbors in Islington, where he has a small but comfortable apartment, and around the city, where he cohorts with high nobility and various sorts of low life, depending on the occasion.

It’s a large and varied cast, and the reader is left to sort out which characters are relevant to the plot and which are there for color and atmosphere. Ms. Grimes’ prose is colorful in itself. Often a description will be rewarding to read, whether or not it is germane.

At the start of the present installment, Jury goes to Vertigo 42 to meet a friend of a friend, Tom Williamson, whose wife, Tess — note the reference to Hardy — fell down a flight of steps and died 17 years ago. Tess suffered from vertigo — note the Hitchcock reference — and the fall was judged to be an accident, but Tom harbors the belief that Tess was in fact murdered.

By pertinent coincidence, five years before Tess’ death, a young girl named Hilda Palmer fell into the Williamsons’ pool and died during a party Tess was giving for the neighborhood children. Tess was accused, then legally exonerated, of Hilda’s death, but she remained guilty in the eyes of Hilda’s vengeful parents and some of her neighbors.

Back to the present: Jury is called on to investigate a new death by falling. A woman called Belle Syms has climbed a tower while wearing an expensive Givenchy gown and high-heeled Jimmy Choo shoes and fallen to her death over a high parapet.

There would seem to be no connection between this and the earlier incidents until Belle Syms turns out to be the married name of Arabella Hastings, who had been one of the children present at Tess’ fatal party 22 years ago.

Ms. Grimes takes us into the adult lives of the children who had witnessed Hilda’s death. Each presents a vivid vignette, although the portrayal of those now known to be gay perpetuates some offensive stereotypes and seems to betray a degree of homophobia on the author’s part. 

It may be argued that the plot twists and ultimate denouement are obvious or predictable. Despite this, and the inevitable Melrose Plant circle scenes, Ms. Grimes is a fascinating writer, who can always be relied on for a snappy plot peppered with colorful prose descriptions and a Dickensian array of memorable characters.

Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor.

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