Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Martha Grimes’ detecting duo of Scotland Yard’s Richard Jury and his friend, the aristocratic Melrose Plant, have won fans all over the world since 1981. This feature wouldn’t be complete without spotlighting at least one of their adventures so today, let’s take a closer look at their third pairing, The Anodyne Necklace.
Jury is pulled away from weekend plans to visit Melrose Plant in Long Piddlington when a dog discovers a human finger bone in the village of Littlebourne. He’s none too pleased about it, but DCS Racer tells him no-one else is available to take the case. So Jury tells Plant what’s happened and goes to Littlebourne. Then a local bird-watching fanatic, Ernestine Craigie, discovers the body of a young woman in a wood near Littlebourne. Jury and his team begin a full-scale investigation and discover that the dead woman was Cora Binns, who worked for a London temporary secretarial agency. Jury learns that Cora had traveled to Littlebourne for a job interview, but never made it to that interview.
Jury also discovers another connection between Littlebourne and the part of London where Cora lived. Sixteen-year-old Littlebourne resident Katie O’Brien has been in a coma since the day she was brutally attacked in a London underground station in the neighbourhood where Cora Binns lived. Katie has a great deal of musical talent, and her mother was paying for her to travel to London to study violin. It seems that she was on her way home from her lesson one afternoon when she was attacked.
While Jury and his team are working on the investigations into what happened to Katie O’Brien and Cora Binns, Melrose Plant is busy, too. He’s traveled to Littlebourne to help in the investigation and, under the guise of looking for a house there, is following up on something interesting that he learned from Jury. About a year previously, Littlebourne had also been the scene of a robbery and not long afterwards, a death. Lord Kennington owned some valuable jewelry, including an emerald necklace, that was stolen by his secretary Trevor Tree. Tree escaped but was run down by a car and killed a few days after the robbery. A few months later, Kennington himself died. Not much has been done about the investigation into the robbery since Tree was killed, so the jewelry has never been recovered.
Jury and Plant are soon convinced that the events in Littlebourne are all related, and so they prove to be. In the end, we find that Cora Binns’ death, the attack on Katie O’Brien and the jewelry theft are all tied together. The clue to everything turns out to be an unusual treasure map and a seedy East End pub.
One of the most important elements in this novel is the set of characters. Of course there are the “regulars:” Inspector Jury himself; the sarcastic, aristocratic and ever-curious Melrose Plant; Plant’s exasperating Aunt Agatha; and the hypochondriac Sergeant Wiggins. Beyond that, though, there are some very interesting village characters. For example, there’s local mystery novelist Polly Praed. She’s fascinated by real-life detection and when real murder comes to Littlebourne, she’s only too happy to get involved. She’s especially intrigued by Melrose Plant, whom she sees as a romantic prospect. One of Praed’s favourite pastimes is inventing different kinds of deaths for Sir Miles Bodenheim, the local squire, and the members of his family. All of them are heartily disliked locally, and their characters, too, add to the “local colour.” So does the character of tearoom owner Celia Pettigrew. And then there’s ten-year-old Emily Louise Perk, who knows more about horses than most of the adults in the village, and who knows more about the mystery than she wants to tell. There are also plenty of East End characters who add texture to the story.
Settings also play an important role in this novel. The village setting is carefully crafted, and it’s an effective backdrop for the story:
“The village had its one street, called the High, which divided halfway along so that it flowed round an irregular patch of carefully tended grass called Littlebourne Green. The High had its sufficiency of shops, just enough so that the villagers weren’t forced to go into the market town of Hertfield, four miles away…As some wags liked to put it, the High contained, among other things, Littlebourne’s four P’s: one pastor, one post office, one pub and one police station.”
Plenty of the action also takes place in London’s East End, and we get a strong sense of that setting, too:
“It was clear how Catchcoach Street had come by its name: it was a daggerlike, blind alley, far removed from the fashionable cul-de-sacs of Belgravia and Mayfair. Narrow, run-down houses huddled together, closer at the blade-tip end. The air smelled of fish and brackish Thames water.”
The two very different settings and sets of characters offer an interesting contrast as the story goes on.
One of the other elements in this novel is the sense of humour that we see in several places. For example, at the beginning of the novel, when Plant finds out about what’s happened at Littlebourne, he plans immediately to go there to get involved in the investigation. He doesn’t want Aunt Agatha to know, though:
“Beneath his dressing gown, Melrose was wearing his traveling clothes. He had meant to get off around nine, but he had to spend quite a bit of time stalling her [Aunt Agatha], putting her, indeed, off the scent. If she knew he was going to be meeting Superintendent Jury, she would hiding out in the trunk of the Rolls.”
When Plant gets to Littlebourne, he and Jury discover that Emily Louise Perk may know quite a bit about the village and its inhabitants. So they both try to befriend her to get her to talk. It’s amusing, though, because Plant isn’t much of a one for children, and Emily Louise isn’t easily taken in. She does, indeed, know some important information about the case, but she’s a match for both men and doesn’t part with anything unless she gets food:
“‘Murder? What happened?’ [Plant]
She [Emily Louise] had finished the crisps already and was now folding the greasy little packet into small squares. ‘I don’t know. Want some more crisps?’
‘I didn’t want those. What about this murder?’
She shrugged. Now the heels were drumming more quickly against the wood.
‘Well who was murdered?’ As he watched her noncommittal face, he decided he’d sooner open oysters with a matchstick….
Melrose plunked another fifty pence on the table and said, ‘Let’s have some more crisps.’
She was up, over and back in a flash with another packet. ‘It was horrid, the murder.’”
Although there are doses of humour in the story, it isn’t what you would call light. We do find out who the murderer is, and that is satisfying and brings closure. At the same time, life in the village will not be the same, and we don’t get a sense that all is now going to be well. Still, there’s hope and a sense that life will go on.
The mystery itself is an interesting puzzle, but it’s the characters and setting, with a dash of humour, that tie this novel together. But what’s your view? Have you read The Anodyne Necklace? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 2 May/Tuesday 3 May – Smoke and Mirrors – Kel Robertson
Monday 9 May/Tuesday 10 May – Baltimore Blues – Laura Lippman
Monday 16 May/Tuesday 17 May – Whip Hand – Dick Francis