Long Piddleton, Northants, is one of those bucolic and historic English towns in which most people know each other, perhaps too well for comfort, and life proceeds at a relaxed pace. It is the ancestral home of Melrose Plant, and the adopted home of his annoying aunt by marriage, Agatha (“the albatross his uncle shot down and left to hang around his nephew’s neck”). Plant escapes Agatha four months out of every year to assume the chair in French Romantic poetry at the University of London, leaving the town of half-timbered, thatched houses to the growing influx of artists and writers.
Melrose Plant is one of those extraordinary Englishman who actually gave up his various titles, in favor of becoming a commoner. No longer the eighth Earl of Caverness and the twelfth Viscount Ardry, Plant has relieved himself of the tedium of sitting in the House of Lords, and has informed his impeccable butler, Ruthven, that he is no longer to be called “my lord.” Since there is no longer a Lord Ardry, whose inevitable wife will have the title Lady Ardry, Aunt Agatha has appropriated that title for herself.
It was a restful winter afternoon in Long Pid, as the locals call it, and Plant has biked down from Ardry End, “the turreted and towered manor” which villagers call the “Great House,” to have his afternoon drink and read at the Jack and Hammer. His peaceful reading is interrupted when the publican’s attention is drawn to the fact that a moldering body is fastened above the signage, hidden in plain sight of the villagers, like the infamous purloined letter, outside one of the upstairs rooms for travelers.
Soon thereafter, another body is found, head down in a beer keg, in the wine cellar of The Man With a Load of Mischief, another of Long Pid’s ancient inns. In a town where everyone knows each other, it is remarkable that two total strangers should come to town and be murdered in various inns, surrounded by people who may have noticed. The local constabulary is befuddled, and Detective Chief Inspector Richard Jury is dispatched by Scotland Yard to clear it up.
Aunt Agatha, who fancies herself a mystery writer, but has yet to produce a manuscript, is thrilled. Now that Scotland Yard has sent the handsome Jury, she intends to be his major collaborator in the investigation. Much to Agatha’s surprise, she becomes a suspect, unlike her nephew, with whom Jury spends a great deal of time—and Plant is Jury’s collaborator of choice.
A small coterie of locals meet almost daily at the various inns’ public houses and restaurants for the rounds of pints and cocktails that are such an approved part of the English diet. Gossip is rife, and these residents are sure that they know more about each other’s business than the others know of theirs. But of course Jury and his sergeant, the hypochondriac Wiggins, will find out a great deal more, which has remained hidden under the manners, charms, and social personae of Long Pid’s small social circles.
There will be more bodies, too, people meeting their maker under Jury’s very nose. He will be frustrated by Agatha’s meddling, and the well-meaning vicar’s etymological meanderings on the subject of traditional inn names, not to mention his annoying superintendent at the Yard, and the killer himself. Fortunately he has the clever Melrose Plant as an ally.
Fortunately for the readers, we also have Plant and Jury to soothe us, Agatha to exasperate us, and the society of Long Piddleton to confound us. Above all, there is Martha Grimes’ lovely, literate prose, which raises the mystery to the realm of literature, and invites us to return again to visit Melrose Plant in Long Pid.