My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When it comes to light summer reading, perfect for sweltering days spent in air-conditioned comfort in one's favorite chair, it's hard to beat one of Martha Grimes' Richard Jury mysteries. She's up to her usual standard in The Case Has Altered although there were one or two things that annoyed me. But I'll get to those in a moment.
In this fourteenth entry in the series, the mystery involves the murder of two women. One was a guest at a country home of local gentry in the isolated fens. She was the ex-wife of the owner of the estate and a thoroughly self-centered and evil person who was disliked by everyone who knew her. Plenty of possible suspects for her murder.
The second victim, killed a few days after the first, was a barmaid at the pub called "The Case Has Altered" who also worked part time in the kitchen and as a sometimes maid at the estate. She seemed to be a thoroughly inoffensive person, one who would go unnoticed in a crowd, and there doesn't seem to be any obvious motive for her to have been killed.
It turns out that another guest at the estate at the time that the ex-wife was killed was Lady Jennifer Kennington, whom Richard Jury has long carried a torch for, but, being Richard Jury, he's never mentioned it to the object of his affection. Through a convoluted set of circumstances, Lady Kennington becomes the prime suspect in the murders. Superintendent Jury and his friend Melrose Plant begin their independent investigation to try to clear her.
Things do not go well with the investigation. They are unable to come up with any other plausible suspects and eventually Jenny is arrested for the murders. Her situation is not enhanced by the fact that she withholds information from the police. She keeps secrets even when it isn't necessary. However, the evidence against her is purely circumstantial and at the hearing, the judge decides there is not enough reason to hold her.
The investigation continues.
Meanwhile, back in Long Piddleton, Melrose's obnoxious Aunt Agatha is pursuing her own case against a local shop owner. She claims to have been attacked by the owner's tiny dog, causing her to trip over the shop's sidewalk display and injure her ankle. She is suing the owner who has no money and who will be bankrupted if she loses.
Since she has no money for a solicitor, the flamboyant local antiques dealer, Marshall Trueblood, takes on her case and represents her at the trial. The trial itself is a hoot and it turns out exactly as any reader in her right mind - and heart - would want it to.
The murder case, too, is eventually resolved, although it is never really clear why Jenny is so secretive. She could have saved herself and everyone else an awful lot of trouble if she had just told the whole truth to begin with. In fact, I find Jenny to be an extremely unlikable character. I think it's time Jury moved on from his infatuation with her.
The character of Lady Jenny Kennington was one of the things that annoyed me about this story. The other was the author's description of the second murder victim - the barmaid/cook's assistant/maid. Every time her name is mentioned, Grimes goes into excruciating detail about how the woman was ugly. She was not attractive to men and so the only way she could ever get one was by falling into bed with them. Which she did. Because she was unattractive and tried to make up for it by being willing. Willing to do anything.
Over and over the author drives home just how plain the woman was. Her plainness did, it is true, have something to do with the resolution of the case, but she didn't have to beat her readers over the head with it in every chapter. Once or twice would have been more than enough. P.D. James would have made the point in one.
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