My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This sixteenth entry in the "Richard Jury Mysteries" is actually a Melrose Plant mystery. Richard Jury only makes a brief appearance in the story at the end of the book during the wrapping up phase.
The hook of the story is that Jury is in Ireland on Scotland Yard business and his friend Melrose, bored with his existence in Northumberland and hoping to get away from Aunt Agatha, decides to rent a house for three months in Cornwall. Of course, there is no easy escape from Agatha and soon she is ensconced in Cornwall as well, staying at a B-and-B and learning the real estate trade from her new friend there.
The house which Melrose has chosen to rent is right out of Rebecca or Jamaica Inn or some other Daphne du Maurier tale. It exudes an air of tragedy, even in the harsh beauty of its surroundings. Melrose wonders from where the feeling of sadness and mystery which surrounds the house emanates. He doesn't have to wonder long.
He soon learns that four years previously two children who lived in the house drowned in the nearby sea. After the horror of this event, their parents moved away, never to return and the house was put up for rent. Even though Commander Brian Macalvie was on the case of the drowned children, it was never really solved. Was it simply an inexplicable accident or was it something more sinister? As we've learned previously, Macalvie never closes a case that he hasn't solved, so he is still looking for answers.
Melrose Plant settles into the Cornwall community for his three-month vacation and begins visiting the pubs and pastry shops and talking with the locals. He is soon engrossed in the tales that he hears of the place and particularly of the family which occupied the house where he is now living and the tragedy that befell them. His avocation as an amateur detective leads him to snoop further.
But soon there are more and newer mysteries to ponder. The half-owner of the local pastry shop, and aunt of a young man who works several jobs around the town and whom Melrose meets and likes, has disappeared without leaving any word for her nephew as to where she was going. At the same time, the murdered body of a woman is found in a nearby village and Melrose fears at first that it is the missing aunt, but it turns out to be someone else altogether. However, the victim is someone who had had public disagreements with the aunt. Suddenly, the missing person becomes a possible suspect in the murder.
Melrose visits a local hospice where his landlord is presently living. It turns out to be more like an upscale retirement home. The old man, his landlord, is the grandfather of the two children who died. Also, living at the home is the man's long-time chauffeur, who is suffering from AIDS and whose survival prospects are dim. (This book was published in 1999.) But soon even those prospects are ended when the man is shot dead while sitting in his employer's wheelchair. Was the shot to the back truly intended for him or was it a case of mistaken identity?
Well, the bodies continue to drop while Melrose and Macalvie puzzle through the clues and try to determine if there is a connection among all these deaths or are they merely coincidences?
We do get a bit of respite from the doom and gloom of Cornwall when Melrose takes a trip to London and there meets with the artist Bea Slocum with whom he's having a bit of a romance. And I say "Bravo!" to Martha Grimes for actually finally giving him an adult emotional experience. More, please.
Grimes' plots are very loosely constructed and tend to wander here and there. Once again, we get to spend ample time in Long Piddleton, and once again Vivian Rivington is threatening to marry her Italian count. Therefore, it follows as the night does the day that the usual Piddletonian suspects are engaged in their juvenile shenanigans meant to thwart the nuptials. Contrast their silly antics with the grotesque explanation of the two children's deaths which Macalvie finally uncovers. It's enough to make a reader queasy, but that's Grimes for you - from shock to comedy routines to intrigue all within the covers of one book.
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