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VINE VOICEon 27 February 2006
In “The Old Wine Shades,” Martha Grimes’ latest--and 21st Richard Jury mystery--is an attention-grabber from the first sentence. Grimes, after seemingly going through a rough patch in the last number or so of Jury stories, is back on track with another fast-paced, mesmerizing story, a labyrinthine reading adventure that’s well worth the read.
“A man walked into a pub,” or so the joke goes. And Grimes grabs this narrative hook and off to the races she goes. Jury, on a semi-suspension pending the outcome of an inquiry over the illegal search of a crime scene in the previous book (“The Winds of Change”), seems to have time on his hands. Sitting in a favorite local pub (Grimes’ Jury books are all names of actual pubs) called The Old Wine Shades, Jury is approached by a well-dressed, highly intelligent, and most personable gentleman, a physicist who’s into more physics than the average reader is likely to know, who begins telling Jury the story of the disappearance of the wife of a fellow physicist, her autistic son, and their dog Mungo. Over three evenings (and lots of vintage wine), Harry Johnson tells this compelling--and mystifying tale. It’s been nice months since the disappearance: no ransom demand, no post cards, no body. (No body? Asks Carole-anne, Jury’s neighbor friend form previous Grimes stories. “A body will turn up. A body always does,” she says.) The story is so compelling that Jury can’t keep it out of his mind.
The story, as Jury says, is actually a frame story, or a story within a story within a story….Weaving the murder mystery intricately with lessons in quantum physics (the superstring theory, Schrodinger’s cat, Einstein, Niels Bohr), Grimes doesn’t get lost in pedantry, however. (Actually, she’s quite clever as she deftly makes one quantum leap to another with this thread!)
A key element, however, is the dog Mungo. “And the dog came back,” we’re told. After nine months, Johnson says that Mungo just appeared at his door. Mungo is more than just an incidental element in the story as Grimes particulates her characters at the speed of light, treading lightly on such theories of relativity--all to justify the ends in this riveting story. “The Old Wine Shades” is vintage Martha Grimes, as she continuously comes back to her literary lifelines: her established charcters from Long Pid (Melrose Plant, Aunt Agatha, and the gang at the Jack and Hammer), Jury’s office mates, his neighbors and colleagues. A Jury story wouldn’t be the same without them, of course. And Grimes’ penchant for the literary has always been one of her strong points, with an allusion here and an allusion there, pleasantly interspersed which only adds to the interest. Her love for London (especially Foyles book store and Fortnam and Mason’s department store) makes the reader feel her stories are somehow, well, “local color.” Her eloquent narrative descriptions combined with subtle--and often dry--humor and fast-paced dialogue has made the latest in her series certainly one of the favorites. Grimes, however, is not an author easily picked up in the middle. Readers, it seems, are expected to know the background of too many references to previous books and this is could be a frustration for first timers. Still, that said, I’ve never found a Richard Jury story that wasn’t worth the read. This one’s a winner.
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In every crime novelist, there must lurk moments of passion when the writer wants to be taken more seriously. Having seen how critics often fall all over themselves when novelists employ devices like building their stories around ideas from philosophy and quantum physics, the novelist must think, "I can do that, too!"
Why am I speculating in this way? Well, I cannot think of any other way to introduce The Old Wine Shades to You.
If you are old enough to remember a television series called "The Twilight Zone," you'll realize that this Richard Jury novel is a bit different from those that precede it in this distinguished series when I say the book reminds me of that series.
Richard Jury meets Harry Johnson, a well-dressed man in a wine bar that features the rarest and finest wines. Johnson begins to tell Jury a story. Jury is soon rapt and the conversation continues over dinner and more meetings in The Old Wine Shades and more dinners.
There's been a mysterious disappearance of a woman, her son and a dog. Although it's none of Jury's business, he soon finds himself checking out the story and wondering what's going on. The most puzzling part is that the dog came back. What does that mean?
Ms. Grimes deftly weaves layers of story on top of other layers of stories until it's difficult to keep track of who's telling what story about whom and what. It's masterfully conceived and executed . . . with one small problem from my point of view. Did she really have to add a dog that seems to share traits with some of Stephen King's menageries?
The book is clearly a tour de force for those who enjoy such displays of fictional éclat.
Although I enjoyed the story well enough, I couldn't help but hope that Richard Jury's future novels will move out of The Old Wine Shades into some agreeable pub where Melrose Plant can help move things along.
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on 17 September 2010
Let me start by quoting an Amazon US reviewer who wrote in March 2006: "In every crime novelist, there must lurk moments of passion when the writer wants to be taken more seriously. Having seen how critics often fall all over themselves when novelists employ devices like building their stories around ideas from philosophy and quantum physics, the novelist must think, 'I can do that, too!'"

This same reviewer further suggests that Grimes has adopted the expansive, scholarly and perhaps too self-consciously literary style of Umberto Eco.

Perhaps, perhaps.

Another reviewer, also in March, wrote this: "I've read all of the Richard Jury novels and I've always enjoyed how the characters have evolved throughout the series. Unfortunately, Martha Grimes has reached a dead end. There's nothing new with Richard Jury, Melrose Plant, or any of the other characters."


A third March reviewer (a perceptive month, it seems) offered this heartfelt cry: "I will neve[r] again get sucked into buying one of her books. I should have stopped reading them 4 or 5 ago but kept hoping that she'd change."

Too true, alas.

There might be something in the notion that Grimes used Eco's work as a model for her mixture of detection and esoterica. Let me offer another possible model for the structure of her book. Polish author Jan Potocki wrote a book whose title is translated into English as "The Saragossa Manuscript" or sometimes as "The Manuscript found in Saragossa". "Saragossa" is a wild and wooly gaggle of stories told not consecutively but as a series of asides by characters within each narrative, reaching five, six, seven--who knows how many?--levels deep, like a sequence of Russian dolls. Grimes' book, the first half, anyway, is much the same. But where Potocki's abrupt turns lurch into radically different moods, different styles and, for all I know, different universes, Grimes just plods in zigzags along the same old dusty track.

Fans will note that all of Grimes' familiar characters are present: Jury, of course; Melrose Plant, his aunt, his cronies, Jury's boss, the cat Cyril, Sergeant Wiggins and the absolutely requisite feral child. The problem is that they don't do much of anything. Jury just plain maunders. Plant runs off to Italy to indulge in his glove fetish. His aunt eats fairy cakes. His cronies booze it up in a village pub to no discernible purpose. Jury's boss continues in his series-long inability to appreciate his subordinate's exiguous virtues. The cat Cyril hardly even bothers to raise any hell. Wiggins has the sniffles. And this particular iteration of the feral child manages to be remarkably--no, astonishingly unobservant.

Some years ago the American author chose to write an English mystery series centered on a senior British copper. That she apparently neither knew nor cared about British or indeed any police procedures only added to the challenge. It must have come as no small surprise that her first book met with critical and financial success. And so it has been with book after book.

But now I think a malaise has set in. The public has lapped up her stuff for years despite flawed plots and cookie cutter characterization. Why should they stop now? Surely this one will be lapped up, too, so why bother working out kinks in the plot or expending needless effort to breathe a semblance life into cardboard characters? The old rut has never failed. Long live the rut!

Grimes chooses to offer a master criminal of Moriarty-like brilliance, so she has her man speak of quantum mechanics and (super)string theory. Never mind that his knowledge of the subject goes only about as deep as "The Elegant Universe" series aired on PBS. Never mind that his brilliant scheme absolutely depends on Superintendent Jury never once acting like a policeman or even bothering to look at relevant police files. Never mind that at any point in the scheme one or two perfectly ordinary and logical questions from any one of three or four characters would collapse the whole house of cards. Never mind that people, especially the feral child, who should have accumulated more than enough information to insure that he spends the remainder of his days in the slammer, just don't happen to notice--time after time. Never mind that the most intelligent and by far the most sympathetic character in the book is a dog. Never mind that nothing much makes any sense. Never mind that no adequate explanation is offered for any of half a dozen major plot points, because the book does not come to any kind of resolution at all. It just stops.

In 1877 John Ruskin, the most famous art critic of the 19th Century, stepped into the Grosvenor Gallery in London and was appalled by a picture painted by James McNeill Whistler. In his review he wrote, "I have seen and heard much of Cockney impudence before now but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." Whistler figured that his reputation had been damaged to the tune of £1,000, so he sued Ruskin for that amount. When the titanic legal struggle was over, the jury found for Whistler. They awarded him one quarter of a penny--a farthing.

If Martha Grimes doesn't pull up her socks for the next Jury book and exert some effort beyond flinging a pot of words in the public's face, I for one have no intention of spending even so much as that single farthing on her output.
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on 8 March 2008
I'm a huge Jury fan, and have been for years. But, Ms. Grimes, what happened to this story?? It grabs you and keeps you interested, but doesn't move along like other Grimes/Jury books. And the conclusion is terrible! I don't recommend this book at all. Ms. Grimes, I'm disappointed. Please give us the Richard Jury and plot development that your loyal fans have come to expect. I've heard of very famous authors letting lesser know writers use their names for experience. Hopefully that's not what's happening here.
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on 22 May 2007
Settling down with a Jury/Plant mystery is like meeting up with old friends. You've had a blast with them before, you haven't seen them in a while, you're anxious to know what they've got up to. It is at once comforting, stimulating, yet tinged with the sadness that infuses (but never overwhelms) every story.

This, a new twist on the 'man walks into a pub' classic, is unusual in structure, but vintage Grimes nevertheless. It starts slowly, builds gently, features a fascinating twist and introduces an endearing cast of minor characters. I would recommend it wholeheartedly were it not for one irritating feature that infects this and every other recent Grimes: the Americanisms in the dialogue.

No English person, adult or child, would say 'gotten', 'beaten on' or any of a dozen other Americanisms. It was not always like this; I can only imagine that the early books were edited for language. Bring back that editor!
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on 8 August 2012
First off I want to say how much I have enjoyed the Richard Jury books by Martha Grimes. The characters she has created around Jury, from Melrose Plant and the his buddies in Long Piddleton, Sgt. Wiggans, Cyril the cat to Carole-Anne, are humorously and lovingly written as any I have ever read. Some of the plotlines in previous books have been a bit longwinded and drawn out but the journey has always been entertaining and time well spent. Until now!

This book is by far the worst of the series. It rarely, if ever, makes any sense and the author seems to get lost in her own devices of a 'story within a story within a story' theme. Not to mention the superstring theory and quantum physics. It's pretty obvious she doesn't understand any of it and so how are we meant to. Nothing to do with any of that crap moves along the story anyway so why bother with it in the first place.

In end it takes a dog (yes, really) to solve the whodunnit leaving poor Jury in the dust and Melrose with dyed hair and pretending to be a dead physicist. The only worst thing would have been if the author had to kill off Jury. Oh, wait a minute, she's already tried that.

I so struggled to finish this book and the only thing that kept me going was the usual bickering between Lord Plant and Co in the pub and Cyril the cat (always worth a second mention).

And so, I can only hope that the next book in the series is better. Well, it couldn't be worse, could it?
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on 9 July 2007
The beginning of that book is absolutely brilliant, you are drawn ito the mystery and you enjoy the spirited dialogues. The twist towards the end is as unexpected as it is fascinating... but then it's all downhill. This is a book I closed with an overwhelming sense of frustration.
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on 29 July 2011
I have a long standing weakness for well written detective stories and hoped that the Jury books would provide me with a new source. I have now read 5 of them and been hugely disappointed in all of them. On a perhaps niggly note I get really irritated with her use of Americanisms when she is supposed to be writing about England.... elevator/gotten etc. This is just lazy and sloppy and arrogant. I also find the characters very one dimensional and hardly credible. I expect to see lead characters gradually develop over several books but Jury just seems to be pickled in aspic and never seems to move.... I actually have no interest in him as a person and this leads to a diminishing interest in finding out what happens in the hardly credible plots. I would compare these books with the Louise Penny Gamache series which are so beautifully written and characterised.............. So please tell me what I am missing with the Jury books.
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on 8 June 2007
I would give no stars if that were an option....If youve never read Martha Grimes before, DONT start with this book

Her earlier books are good - The Stargazey in particular is wonderful but DONT even consider this one. Such a waste of time and money
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on 13 September 2014
More about Harry and Mungo the dog. Love it. Richard Jury and 'the crew' are brilliant. And a love life for him of sorts....
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