Light/dark mystery by Grimes



Martha Grimes.

Little, Brown.

333 pages. $19.95.

Perhaps it's time to retire "whodunit." In many of the bescontemporary examples of the "cozy" mystery genre grandmothered by Agatha Christie, who did the deed is almost incidental to the unpleasant (if thoroughly delightful) unraveling of the characters' destinies. For much of "The Old Contemptibles," there is some question as to whether anything was, in fact, "dun."

In Martha Grimes' newest -- named, like her 10 previous novels, for an inn that features in the plot -- her police superintendent hero Richard Jury becomes involved with an enigmatic, troubled woman whose family suffers a series of ambiguous tragedies, including two suicides and two fatal accidents. The Holdsworths' Lake District home, as splendid, claustrophobic and packed with eccentrics as any Christie house party, also is teeming with potential suspects, all with a common motive: access to the elderly patriarch's considerable wealth. But has, indeed, a murder been committed?

The mystery itself is a good one, but Ms. Grimes, a native of Maryland who now lives in Washington, has not earned her reputation as a peer of Britons Ruth Rendell and P. D. James by crafting a series of cleverly machine-tooled puzzle plots. Her books occupy a unique position in the genre, midway between the cozy and the psychological suspense novel, and while they have grown darker and more serious since the pivotal "The Deer Leap," they areleavened by considerable wit and a well-honed social eye.

Critics tend to compare her not with other mystery writers, but with classic English novelists: Dickensian color when she ventures into working-class pubs, a little Jane Austen in the drawing room, a large dollop of Wodehouse. (Although Melrose Plant, the lovelorn ex-earl and amateur detective who appears in all the novels, would just as soon not be Bertie Wooster. Bertie may have an omniscient butler and a cantankerous Aunt Agatha, just like Melrose, but Bertie certainly wouldn't have a taste for Lou Reed.)

After the gloom of several of Ms. Grimes' recent offerings, "The Old Contemptibles" is almost larky, but has the power to go from light to dark and back again in the turn of a few pages. This deft combination of shocks and laughs, brooding psychological realism and lighthearted English archetype, beloved returning characters and quirky new ones, and some patented Martha Grimes touches -- yes, once again we have a preternaturally intelligent child and a couple of similarly canny cats -- make this the author's most entertaining novel in years.

Ms. Williams is a writer for The Sun.


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