Wednesday, July 21, 2010

My Gripe With Grimes

(reflection on Martha Grimes' detective novel THE BLACK CAT.)

Although I expect any detective fiction to be on some level a game  (see my "Guilty Pleasure in Crime Fiction" ), I also hope to lose myself in the story.   THE BLACK CAT drew me in quickly with elements of plot, involving expensively dressed corpses of women who work for different "escort services."    Grimes also continues an emotional storyline from an earlier book in the series, as Inspector Richard Jury visits a comatose woman in the hospital, guilty that he feels more relief that the relationship is over than sadness over the certainty that she won't recover.  That's plausible.  In this novel, there's a likable small town detective with a paraplegic wife.  They're appealing.

But I could never believe the story because Grimes keeps interrupting it with whimsical characters and their self-consciously witty dialogue -- perhaps aiming for the effect of Sayers' Lord Peter Whimsey fictions. It's why I put down Grimes after initial excitement with her series a few years ago.   The characters seem sometimes to be aware that they are part of an entertainment.  There are whole chapters that seem intended to be "cute," here involving a couple of anthropomorphized pets.  In other novels, there were cute chapters involving over-the-top small town characters -- an aunt, a lazy aristocrat, a snide butler -- all looking like they'd wandered in from a parody of Agatha Christie.   

Granted, it's a fine line to walk between the artifice that we love in detective fiction, and the artificiality that makes it flat.   In Grimes, I think the problem may be in Jury himself, because she seems to play him both ways.   He's sort of like the detective in WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?  who passes between a real world and a cartoon one. 

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