EMILY LOUISE PERK STEALS THE STORY
This story is more driven by character than by plot. Make no mistake – there is a plot, a very complicated one involving a theft, a mugging, a series of poison-pen letters, an accidental death and a deliberate death. All of these events take place within one year’s time, are seemingly unrelated, but are all perpetrated upon or by residents of a small village close to London called Littlebourne.
It is the deliberate death, evidenced only by a dog chewing on a severed finger bone that gives Chief Superintendent Racer the gleeful opportunity to cancel Superintendent Richard Jury’s weekend plans with Melrose Plant at Ardry End. And that gives Plant the opportunity to ditch Aunt Agatha and get involved in a murder investigation. It will only take Jury, Wiggins and Plant three days to solve the murder. But in those three days, they – and the reader – will encounter some of the oddest and saddest specimens of the human race possible.
One of these characters is Emily Louise Perk, a ten-year-old girl with an affinity for horses, a need to ply crayons to coloring books, the ability to sell sand in a desert, and an intelligence for self-survival that is off the charts. Whether Martha Grimes intended it or not, Emily Louise steals the story away from Jury and Plant. She turns out to be integral to the solution of the murder; but her very existence and manner also brings out aspects of both Jury’s and Plant’s characters heretofore unseen.
Emily Louise may be central but she is just one of a large complement of characters, in both Littlebourne and London, who play a role in this complicated mystery. At first, I was aggravated that there were so many to keep straight. However, my aggravation dropped away when I remembered that, in real life, the police have to sort them all out also. So I relaxed and let Jury do all the heavy lifting.
In the end, I still picked the wrong person as the murderer. But, then, Jury had accused the wrong person late in the story also. And when the villain’s identity was finally revealed, I realized that Grimes had already told us, in a backhanded way, near the beginning of the novel, exactly whom the murderer would turn out to be. Missing that really made me hang my amateur sleuth’s head in shame and disgust.
Even though the author managed to keep her secrets to the end, she did so in a magnificent and entertaining way. The internal monologues of Jury and Plant are consistently written with tongue-in-cheek humor, satire, sarcasm, eye-rolling snark, and a 180-degree separation in what is thought versus what is said. This approach for Jury is quite different from the style in the first two books of the series. But this technique in no way lessened the psychological import of the scenes involved.
Grimes also uses, in this novel, what would be termed in visual media as “sight gags.” I do not know the appropriate term for printed media, but the equivalent in this novel is the repeated use of the “baby in a carriage” image. It turns out to be quite important to our perception of Jury.
And, in the vein of perceiving character traits, Grimes gives us new insight into Wiggins. He actually appears far less in this work than in the previous novels, but when he does speak, we find that there is a totally new layer to him beneath the hypochondria and the compulsive attention to detail. Our first clue is his reference to a famous quote from “The Wizard of Oz” that follows a jaw-sucking, skin-crawling scene in a London slum. And then Grimes expands Wiggins from there, just a bit, but a very noticeable bit.
In the end, we have a third novel in a series that is neither formulaic nor does it follow any pattern from the previous entries. The crimes are complex, woven through a loom of time and lies. So the story is convoluted to match the crimes. We don’t get all the answers by the last page either, but that is neither poor workmanship nor oversight on the part of the author. It is simply that dead people can tell no tales.
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