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'Five Bells': An American Beats English at Own Game

December 08, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

The Five Bells and Bladebone by Martha Grimes (Little, Brown: $15.95; 208 pages)

Martha Grimes, an East Coast American, has daringly and quite successfully undertaken to beat the English writers of country village crime at their own game.

Her puzzles are not as classically intricate as Agatha Christie's, but her well-written evocations of a contemporary yet timeless exurban England, colorful but sanitized, recall Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and many other able if less-noted practitioners.

"The Five Bells and Bladebone" is the ninth of Grimes' Inspector Richard Jury novels, each titled for and partially placed at what is said to be a real pub of the same way-out name.

The plotting this time is particularly clever: The body of the caddish husband, stuffed in a kind of bureau/desk, is identifiable easily enough. But who truly is the fatally perforated lady bobbing in the Thames muck at Wapping Old Stairs?

The tangle of impersonations is teasing, although it develops little of the emotional and psychological complications of, say, the impersonation in Hitchcock's "Vertigo."

The lurking danger of doing a series with continuing minor characters is that the incidental music can begin to obscure the main theme. In this outing, Jury's title-renouncing aristocratic pal Plant seems more unhelpful and uninteresting than ever, his dreadful Aunt Agatha more tiresome than before; the various vapid ladies who buzz about Jury like flies on a Danish pastry appear only tedious.

The best inventions of the book, including a teen-age boy in need of a break, struggle to be noted amid the perfunctory if extensive courtesies to Plant et al.

That sort of thing can be done well. One of the rewards of reading Allingham over the years was watching Albert Campion evolve, marry, beget and age. Marsh's Roderick Alleyn had a painter wife and an ongoing if unobtrusive off-crime life. And P. D. James' Adam Dalgliesh, with his poetry and his loneliness, is a well-realized character, economically set forth.

Grimes is very good. Her ability to capture atmosphere (here the mean streets and moody river of Wapping and Limehouse) and her way with young people are notable. She has also created a marvelous cat to bedevil Jury's boss in the C.I.D. But her supporting cast of regulars, including Jury's inept boss himself--a sort of wrong-font M--ought to earn their keep or stay in the wings.

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