Martha Grimes' 'Foul Matter' eviscerates N.Y. lit industry

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Almost 10 years ago, the Alfred A. Knopf company dropped Martha Grimes from its stable of authors. The decision was made by Sonny Mehta, editor in chief since 1987, that successful mystery stories were excessive.

Now comes Grimes' Foul Matter (Viking, 372 pages, $25.95), which the chattering masses of New York publishing take as an act of vengeance. In a manner that is more playful than spiteful, it is just that. But Grimes reaches far beyond personalities, delving deep inside the literary business in the United States and finding it intellectually and ethically rancid - drawn at frantic pace by a matched team of cupidity and stupidity.

I know very decent, committed people of splendid personal culture in the book trade. Grimes' book recognizes their existence - though as a pitiful minority: a few editors, ambitious apprentices, an aging hero figure or two left from the days when the ostensible standards were excellence, integrity and courage. Today, German dominated, driven almost entirely by crass market decisions, with little or no attention to the gentlemanly practice of high literary dedication and low profit margins, traditional until a generation or more ago.

Grimes knows of what she speaks. She has written 24 books, including a volume of poetry and two memoirs. She is best known for her 18 Richard Jury mysteries. Now 72, she grew up in Western Maryland where her mother, widowed when Martha was 6, was partner in a resort hotel. She went to the University of Maryland and taught for 15 years at the Takoma Park campus of Montgomery College. She lives in Washington and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Foul Matter's plot hurtles ahead suspensefully, often at lightning speed. Paul Giverney is an enormously successful writer of commercial fiction whose last contract was $6.2 million for two books. He is leaving the publishing house of Queeg and Hyde. (Grimes has great fun with names and titles.) He is negotiating with the superfirm Mackenzie-Haack for $8 million - which no one believes will be earned back. The zeal to get him and his books is fueled not by good business judgment but rather by zeal to appear to be the trade's top dog. Clive Esterhaus is an ambitious senior editor negotiating for Bobby Mackenzie, chief of the firm.

Giverney demands during their negotiations that the firm get rid of Ned Isaly, a top-level literary novelist who brings in vastly less money than Giverney and who is about to finish his new book. Giverney's motive remains mysterious till near the book's end.

From there on, it gets intricate.

Fearful that dumping Isaly will drive away other writers and a top editor, Bobby Mackenzie insists that Clive hire a hit man to kill Isaly. They bring in a mobster, Danny Zito, who has written a book the firm published and is now in the federal witness protection program.

Zito introduces the most lovable characters in the book - Candy and Karl, professional mob assassins. Candy is fascinated by "ephemeral art" and Chelsea galleries. He is enduringly fond of the term "this bodes ill" - because one of the subjects of their craft had said it the moment before he was shot in the head. He wears a $3,000 suit. Both become conversational literary critics and argue about the pronunciation of "genre."

They are inseparable companions as well as partners in homicide. They talk in a private language that suggests the memorable pronouncements of Yogi Berra:

"Chrissakes, C, you remember all that stuff? What a memory."

"Yeah, well, you know - you don't remember, then you forget."

Grimes is spectacularly literate. There are puns within puns, not only on names and places but on phrases from the poetry of Auden, who haunts Ned's consciousness, and of Frost, Emily Dickinson and others. Literary allusions - contemporary and classic, prose and poetry - hop in and out like baby rabbits in springtime grass. Two competing publishing houses are Grunge and DreckSneed. Giverney's agent is Mortimer Durban - of Mort Janklow and Amanda Urban, two of the hottest actual agents in the trade.

It gets more delightful as it gets more tangled. Cameo characters hover somewhere between highly polished cliches and brilliant contrivances. There is a red-headed female private eye named Blaze Pascal. "Foul matter," Grimes relates, is old publishing house jargon for an unedited manuscript.

There is barbed but cheery ridicule of Manhattan bars, restaurants, pretentious poets, genre writers who crank out four books a year and drink boilermakers. There is a tramp who insists he is not "a homeless" - scorning that as a yuppie invention. Hearty scorn is flung at writers' colonies, and virtually every literary award that gets any attention among the public.

Everybody except recovering alcoholics drinks immense amounts - lunches with wine followed by brandy and then cocktails in the evening and sometimes dinner before imbibing begins in serious earnest. There are bottles in desk drawers and more openly in senior management offices.

The book rollicks along - readable, civilized, jolly, undemanding, charming. But underlying the playfulness, Grimes presents a deadly serious portrait and dissection of the book industry.

There are ritual lunches of middle-management editors from competing houses, with conversations ripe with lies, traps and strategic deceptions. There is barely ever any discussion of literary quality. "The men at the top didn't know books," she writes, "but they did know money, and money drove publishing just as it did everything else. Literary quality had little to do with it."

Coincidences pile upon coincidences, until they reel and totter. It's all too good to be true. It isn't true - Grimes is not suggesting Sonny Mehta is the sort of man who'd use a mob murder contract as a management tool. The book rings with raucous entertainment, with keen intelligence and boisterous burlesque, with laughing out loud.

Finally, though, it stands firmly on a moral foundation. This is a book that is sound of principle, a tale of deceit and insouciant evil, of vanity and venality - of historically dignified and principled standards that have been sacrificed at the altar of publishing house profits.

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