The Dirty Duck

The Dirty Duck_MarthaGrimes_1649051



I don’t know what was up with Martha Grimes back in 1984 when she wrote this book. But whatever it was, it surely tripped her tongue-in-cheek bone and her sarcastic impulses, because, for 240 pages of relatively small font, we are taken for one heck of a verbal ride.

Just like the previous three entries in this series, Richard Jury, from Scotland Yard, and Melrose Plant, from Ardry End, find themselves in the same place at the same time as a murder. This time the action takes place in touristy Stratford, the burial place of Shakespeare. And the victim is a member of a tour group from America, a very rich female member of the group.

This murder takes place in the first chapter. The victim-to-be is at a pub, The Dirty Duck, after attending a performance of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” She has a companion with her, who is surreptitiously getting her drunk. Grimes lets us into the woman’s thoughts and we discover that she is a plain Jane spinster, living with her Dowager Empress of a mother back in Sarasota, Florida. She’s socially inept, sexually repressed and looking to break free of both ills.

So when her companion asks to escort her back to her B&B by way of a stroll by the river, Gwen gladly accepts. And she is both ecstatic and hopeful when her companion pauses them in the shadows along the pathway.

Oh, yeah! We know that set-up. We know exactly what’s coming. Martha Grimes has led us seriously and straightforwardly right to the cusp of the action. And then she writes:

“…felt hands on her shoulders, felt breath on her neck…it was to her credit that instead of fighting off this affront to her person, she said to herself, ‘The hell with it, Mama! I’m about to be ravished.’ And when she felt that funny tickling sensation somewhere around her breast, she almost giggled, thinking, ‘The silly fool’s got a feather…’  The silly fool had a razor.”

And then I nearly fell out of my chair. My jaw dropped to the floor and the words “Oh. My. God.” came out of my mouth. The simplicity of that last sentence just sucked me in. And this type of writing, a droll, succinct, eye-rolling understatement of fact, follows us all the way through to the end.

Grimes in not making fun of the victims – and Gwen is just the first – with this tone of voice. In fact, the plays on words and the punctuated metaphors just drive the viciousness of the situation farther into the reader’s consciousness. And to use this tactic with the internal monologues of Jury and Plant is just short of brilliant. Their internal sarcasm just further highlights the inanity, the stupidity, the selfishness and the callowness of many of the people they have to question.

We may be chuckling and smiling as we read but we are also desperately trying to follow the clues along with Jury. Very quickly, there is another victim, a nine-year-old boy who has disappeared from his adoptive family, which is also on the same tour as the first victim. He is an intelligent and independent lad and has disappeared before. No one but his ugly duckling of a big sister – and Jury – seems to be truly worried. But we know for a fact that he hasn’t just gone off exploring like those last times; he has been kidnapped.

More victims fall prey to the razor and the boy remains unfound. The action moves from Stratford to London. And then, at the denouement, the story falls apart.

As Jury and Plant subdue the suspect, we get an explanation of why the murders and the kidnapping occurred. We even learn, somewhat, how they came to piece the clues together. But the explanation is missing several very important details. You feel it go sideways and ultimately it requires too much suspension of disbelief for a person in 2014 to accept easily.

In a word, there are just too many coincidences. There are too many things that happened that, by all that’s holy with Murphy’s Law, shouldn’t have happened. And the explanation for that: the murderer had a long time to plan out the details.

Granted, back in 1984, instant media communication was not yet in place – no cell phones, let alone smart phones, and no satellite television. Without those instant photos, videos and voice recordings to contradict the national media, it was much easier for the general populace, and thus the fiction readership, of that time to believe in “coincidence.” It simply took more time then than it does now for things that seem disassociated to reveal their connectedness.

In addition, there is a subplot to this story that also rings false in its details. In that subplot, Grimes revisits Jury’s relationship with not only Vivian Arrington, but with Lady Kennington. Both these relationships occurred in previous books as part of murder investigations that Jury was involved with. And both of these “relationships” ended without any real beginning and were essentially dismissed. But here they are again, resurrected and alive, as if only days had passed instead of years.

Again, “coincidence” rules the outcome for each situation. And in several scenes, particularly the ones revolving around Lady Kennington, Grimes’ writing seems geared to providing an emotional internal drama for Jury, without regard to the common sense of the reader. It also seems geared to a new direction in her story arc.

Grimes has crafted in Jury a character who is highly intelligent, innately deductive, well educated, well contained, and who approaches his suspects and persons of interest calmly and obliquely. Plant is fast becoming a useful Watson to Jury’s Holmes. Frankly, neither Jury nor Plant needs “coincidences” or contrivances manufactured by an author to help their characters as currently established. They weren’t in use in the first three novels, but then, Grimes didn’t have to write herself out of a box in those novels, either.

Cover Art From Goodreads


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