Love, loss – and animal magic: The Black Cat by Martha Grimes

May 9, 2010 at 1:15 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

Last month, I wrote a post on Martha Grimes in which I mentioned my anticipation of her new Richard Jury novel. Now I’m happy to report that my hopes were fully justified: The Black Cat was a veritable treat, a tasty mixture of whimsy, acute observation, pathos, wit, appealing characters and a cunningly crafted plot.

Three young women employed by escort services have been murdered. Two of the victims appear to have been leading double lives. The result is a multiplicity of family members, friends, and acquaintances that need to be interviewed. It seems as though the crimes must be related – but how? The girls all worked for different agencies and appear not to have known one another. Jury and company have their work cut out for them.

Watching them do this work is one of the many pleasures of this novel. One of the reasons I love police procedurals is that the reader gets to meet so many interesting characters in the course of an investigation. The interview process is one that requires a mix of tact, empathy, and cunning that not everyone is naturally capable of. In some procedurals, the detectives who are questioning witnesses and suspects employ a heavy handed approach bordering on arrogance. They assume the moral high ground and work to push their interlocutor down into the muck of uncertainty, confusion, and guilt. I’ve encountered this approach in the novels of Peter Robinson, among others,  and found it extremely off putting.

But Superintendent Jury and his fellow officers have a light touch with those they talk to in the course of  this inquiry.  They begin with tact and diplomacy, becoming stern only if they feel they’re getting a less than truthful account from the interviewee. Grimes writes great, natural sounding  dialog. Some of it is tangential to the investigation but nevertheless serves  to humanize the investigators. Here, for instance, are Jury and Jenkins, a fellow detective, talking about Hitchcock films. They had begun by discussing the nature of obsession. Then Jenkins brought up Vertigo, which he calls a “really sick” film. He elaborates:

“Hitchcock was way off base with Vertigo. That character just wasn’t set up right. Now, take Norman Bates. Norman was completely mad-
Jenkins nodded. “But the guy in Strangers on a Train, Bruno. Now, there was a characterization. Bruno was only half-mad. Both of those characters were more believable than the James Stewart character.”

You get  the sense of real people talking here. It’s a conversation that’s fun to be party to.

Other things are transpiring at the same time that this complex murder inquiry moves forward. For one thing, our old friend Harry Johnson, late of The Old Wine Shades, reappears, primarily because Jury is pursuing him in a Javert-like manner and trying to determine his involvement, if any, in these crimes. Harry’s dog Mungo is also front and center, along with three black cats and a drawer full of kittens. (The kittens are the progeny of the one of the cats, Schrodinger.) There’s a great deal of back and forth with the cats  between Harry’s house and the Old Wine Shades. It got very confusing but I didn’t worry about it. And I should warn you: the animals talk to each other. Or, perhaps I should say, they think to each other. And we are privy to their thoughts. This might annoy some readers, but I enjoyed it. I thought it was whimsical without being cloying.  And well – I talk to my cat all the time, so I’m used this sort of thing.

Meanwhile, while all of this is going on, Jury visits his lover Lu Aguilar in the hospital whenever time allows. Lu was terribly injured in an auto accident and may not pull through. His heart is obviously aching for her.

The Black Cat is a lovely book; I recommend it.

1 Comment

  1. Kevin Gerard said,


    Interesting review – love that the animals are such a presence in the story.

    I’ve written a fantasy adventure series for kids 11 to 17. There are some formidable wild cats in the story – Champions of the Crossworlds – they all have personalities that are based on cats my wife and I have kept in our home.

    I’d be pleased if you’d share the website with friends who might have young readers in their homes.

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