The setting is Manhattan. The subject is the New York publishing industry. The characters are writers, editors, publishers, secretaries, hit men and a PI or two. The plot centers on bestselling author Paul Giverney, who is wanted by every house in the business. He has left his current publisher, Queeg & Hyde, which puts him "in a state of what the sports world called 'free agency.'" He decides to make his move to Mackenzie-Haack as long as they agree to his one unalterable condition, which is to get rid of Ned Isaly --- their most literary writer --- and assign his editor, Tom Kidd, to Giverney. Once this is done he tells Clive Esterhaus that he will sign a three-book contract instead of two.
Esterhaus is appalled, but he was a shrewd and cutthroat businessman who wanted it all. Clive has grave misgivings about this idea and nearly collapses when Bobby tacitly confirms he is proposing that, instead of breaking Isaly's contract, they take one out on him. Mob up? How could he arrange to appease Mackenzie, reassure Paul and still keep Ned safe and securely tied to Mackenzie-Haack? Clive makes the difficult phone call to the notorious Zito, which sets off a panoply of events that will surprise and delight readers. The hit men are hired. They are a pair of independent operators who will not kill anyone until they get to know her/him. If they like the person, they refuse to snuff her/him out. Karl and Candy come to like Isaly and they don't understand why he is being targeted. As part of their plan to collect as much information as they can about him, they each choose a book to read and discuss. Their conversations are comprised of dialogue that is a mix of tough guy talk and intellectual philosophizing. And often they seem the sanest, most grounded of the cast.
Things really start to resemble a French farce when Isaly, out of nostalgia, decides to go to Pennsylvania to visit his hometown. Trailing behind him are all of the main characters, as one by one they realize that he could be in danger. They resemble a parade going the wrong way on a twisted route without a map, each of them trying to hide while they spy on each other and plan to save Ned. Even Giverney, who also grew up in Pennsylvania, ends up hiring a hit man as a bodyguard to protect the mark he fingered but never wanted "taken out."
Martha Grimes is American. Her reputation is solidly built on her Richard Jury novels, all of which are set in England and are so "British" they certainly have appeased the appetite of the stodgiest anglophile for years. FOUL MATTER is one of the few books she has set on U.S. soil. But have no fear. While Jury and company sit this one out, Grimes maintains the high standards she is known for and is on target as she uses her skill to spin a winning tale that is finely honed.
FOUL MATTER is a splendidly erudite, witty and clever exploration of the scandalous, ego-centered world, inhabited by writers who may become pawns in the nefarious machinations of their publishers. We probably will never know if Grimes has fashioned her characters and her story out of her personal experiences, or if her fertile and extraordinary imagination simply turned itself to composing a parody of a genre and industry she knows best. Fans who have followed her career and read her Inspector Jury novels know full well that plausibility is not what makes her characters so appealing; it's their lack of it. Her books are character-driven and in FOUL MATTER she spoofs the players and her own world --- that of writing. Enjoy!
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on January 22, 2011