The Old Wine Shades by Martha Grimes
Reviewed by Rima Walker
A man walked into a bar, a pub really, for this story takes place in the England of Detective Superintendent Richard Jury. The man, well dressed and wealthy Harry Johnson, accompanied by a dog named Mungo, tells Jury, a total stranger, the heartbreaking tale about his friend, Hugh Gault. It seems Gault’s wife and son disappeared 9 months ago, along with that self same dog, Mungo, who later returned without them and now lives with Harry.
All through the book we, Jury, and several of his eccentric friends try to psych out what happened to Mrs. G and the son, Robbie. There are so many possibilities, but they all come to a dead end because no matter how many answers they come up with to solve the riddle, none of them fit. Mr. Gault, a physicist, who is in a psychiatric clinic ostensibly recovering from the disappearances, believes, based on superstring theory, that they are alive in an alternate universe. Discussions about quantum mechanics offer further explanations, as do complicated theories posited by the great physicists such as Einstein, Bohr, Schrödinger, and Gődel. All of these intrigue Jury, but are totally unprovable.
But let’s not get bogged down in science. Instead just enjoy Jury’s struggle to find out what happened to Mrs. G and Robbie, and to why Mungo came back. If there was a kidnapping, what self-respecting kidnapper would saddle himself with a dog and also not ask for ransom? If there were no kidnapping but instead Mrs. G ran off with a lover, why would she have saddled herself with a dog? But once she did, why change her mind and let him find his way home? And if someone murdered her and Robbie, why not the dog as well?
The dog, the dog; he seems to be everywhere. Is it possible that he plays a major role in solving the disappearances? Of course he does, but this reader won’t tell how and neither will Mungo who, alas, cannot speak. But Harry can speak, and does so in detail over a series of evenings that make Jury want to follow the scent (OK, this reader knows Jury isn’t a dog, but he doggedly goes forward until he has the answer).
Fans of detective stories and of Martha Grimes’ tales in particular, will really enjoy this romp through Surrey and London. As the plot unfolds, often with wit and humor, Jury begins to suspect that there is more to Harry and his version of events than appears on the surface. Are we dealing with yet another unreliable narrator? Is Harry all he seems? The plot thickens like oatmeal left to sit on a counter in a cold kitchen.
Some of the plot is farcical; none of it is heavy going, not even the scientific theories. This reader nearly flunked chemistry and physics but had little trouble understanding what it was all about with Ms Grimes as a teacher. So don’t be scared off. If you’ve read other Jury novels, you might think this is the most delightful and best in the series—artful plotting, great characterization, complications made easy, and some real tongue-in-cheek incidents. If you’ve never read Grimes, this is a great one to get your teeth into (and then you can work your way back through the previous 19). Woof! ~