FAMILY LIES AND FAMILY SECRETS
It is five days before Christmas and Scotland Yard Superintendent Richard Jury is taking a short, much-needed vacation. On his way to the Newcastle area, he plans to spend a bit of holiday time with what little family he has remaining. Stopping in the village of Washington Old Town to stretch his legs, he spots an intriguing figure in the cemetery, jotting down information from a gravestone.
As he moves closer, Jury sees that the figure is a woman, beautiful, about his age, and physically ill. This illness is clearly not the average winter flu or even similar to his sergeant’s prodigious hypochondria. What Jury observes is bone deep and Helen Minton confesses to a heart condition.
Jury and Helen, immediately attracted to each other, spend the afternoon engaged in light conversation and having a bit of tea. Making a dinner date with Helen for the next evening, Jury travels on to his cousin’s place. The next day, following festivities with the family, Jury heads back to the Washington Old Hall where Helen volunteers as a docent and where he is to meet her for their date.
When he arrives to find police swarming about the place, Jury learns that Helen has been found dead in an upstairs bedroom, apparently the victim of a heart attack. But when the physical evidence doesn’t quite fit death by natural causes, murder may well be on the table.
The local constabulary reluctantly agrees to give Jury access to their findings. They don’t really want Scotland Yard anywhere near their patch, but, since Jury knew the victim, they realize that even a slight bit of cooperation is better that having the case hijacked completely. A quick call to the Yard confirms Jury’s homicide/CID status and also confirms his reputation as a hound that will quietly worry a bone until the last drop of marrow gives up its hold.
And quietly worry that bone he does. Playing on the oft times need of isolated villagers to know everything about everyone, Jury ferrets out Helen’s movements and contacts for the last few months. A trip to her primary residence in London reveals salient facts about her family history and her schooling. All those facts lead Jury back to that graveyard, to a local orphanage and to a backwoods pub known as the Jerusalem Inn.
At the Inn, Jury finds a retarded youth with the same unusual last name as that on the gravestone. And he finds Melrose Plant chaperoning a teenage pool shark back in the snooker room of the pub. It seems Melrose and his entourage are spending Christmas just down the road at Spinneyton Abbey.
Jury arranges to join Plant back at the Abbey, but by the time he arrives, Melrose has found another body. Jury also finds that the lady of the manor exhibits identical physical symptoms to those Helen displayed. And, for the final discovery of the evening, he finds Helen’s cousin, her only known remaining relative, to be a visitor at the abbey also. With too many coincidences on his hands, Jury, with Plant’s assistance, begins worrying the bone even harder.
Martha Grimes presents us, in this 5th book of her Jury series, a literary mystery rather than an action adventure or strict police procedural. We get detailed and intimate looks into both Jury and Plant before the murders are discovered as well as during the investigative stages. We learn more about the source of Jury’s chronic depression, a source that actually resonates with the circumstances surrounding Helen Minton’s murder. We get to smile and snicker and practically guffaw as we read Melrose Plant’s internal monologues. His snark, his sarcasm and his repartee are natural and rooted in pragmatism rather than meanness. But it is his uncanny observational skills that feed the repartee and the internal thoughts and thus feed Jury some quite important clues.
The vocabulary and sentence structure of Grimes’ novels are definitely upper echelon. There are a multitude of literary and artistic references to Greek and Roman mythology and to classic texts of the 1800’s and prior. These references come with very little explanatory background, so the reader has to make the choice of pushing past them or spending a bit of time with a dictionary and Google.
The first choice leaves the reader with a fuzzy feeling as the clues to the murder are often wrapped inside the literary references. The second choice slows down the reading experience and breaks the train of thought. However, since Grimes definitely writes in a style where attention to detail is a must, the decision to re-read scenes and pull up the reference sites is probably the better choice.
And, as with most literary mysteries, the reader will not find in this book casual romances or explicit sexual situations. The fact that neither Jury nor Plant have ever married, that neither are currently in a relationship and that both are despairing of ever finding that kind of love is a strong part of this storyline. And the fact that it is Christmas makes their respective situations worse.
So if you are a reader who needs a Christmas mystery to be full of spritely angels, sparkly decorations, fresh snow, good cheer, heart-warming relationships and a rosy happy ending, don’t read this one. All you will get is the snow.
Cover Art From Goodreads