Usually, when I’m trying to understand what’s going on in a book, I can fend for myself, but in the midst of reading Martha Grimes’ latest novel, “The Way of All Fish,” I wished I could sit down with her over a cup of tea and ask, “What’s going on here?” I’ve enjoyed her mysteries featuring the wonderful British detective, Richard Jury, but this book, like its predecessor, “Foul Matter,” is a departure: a satirical look at the publishing industry. While it features a bevy of hit men and a gaggle of hoods, nobody gets killed, and the only real crime is an attempted character assassination.
So okay, I get it that Grimes is taking pot shots at the sleazy and venal agents and lawyers who prey on the very authors whose interests they should be protecting, but there are so many problems with “The Way of All Fish” that I found myself muttering, “Martha, Martha, what’s come over you?” Then it occurred to me that all this badness might be deliberate; that in addition to laying bare the seamy underbelly of the publishing industry, the author is also satirizing bad books by writing one. Whether my theory is correct or not, there are enough things wrong with “The Way of All Fish” that it could serve as primer for beginning writers on how not to write a best-seller.
Right off the bat, there’s the title. In her book, Grimes mocks the current trend toward cutesy titles that use punning references to the titles of well-known books, and yet, she’s done exactly that, since “The Way of All Fish” is an obvious play on “The Way of All Flesh.” To make matters worse, she populates her book with a dizzying array of characters. I stopped counting at 31, but I know I missed a few. Most of these people are such undeveloped stereotypes that I had trouble keeping them straight.
When readers can’t remember who the characters are, they’re likely to have trouble following the story. Possibly I would have had less trouble if I’d read “Foul Matter,” whose story the people in “The Way of All Fish” refer to frequently. But every book should be able to stand on its own, and in the case of sequels, the author needs to insert the obligatory back story in one neat little lump. Instead, Grimes has characters who appeared in the previous book make confusing references to its events. But even if “The Way of All Fish” were not a sequel, its plot is hideously convoluted and skitters all over the place like a hyperactive toddler.
The story, as far as I can make out, centers on the plight of Cindy Sella, a charming young writer who is stalled on her second book, probably because she’s preoccupied by a lawsuit her ex-agent, the odious L. Bass Hess, has filed, suing her and her publisher for payment for work he didn’t do and attempting, in the process, to destroy her reputation. The suit, spurious though it is, is weighing on Cindy and costing her a bundle in legal fees, and we later learn that her lawyers are in collusion with Hess. Coming to her rescue are a pair of hit men with scruples. Karl and Candy will not carry out a contract unless they deem the mark evil enough to rub out. The potential victim they are currently shadowing is none other than Hess, who is certainly a slime ball. Now you’d think they’d just shoot the jerk, but oh no. Like a no-kill animal shelter, they just want to persuade him to find a new home far, far away from New York. They also develop a plan to take down the lawyers.
All this aside, I have to say that “The Way of All Fish” is very funny and has some beautifully crafted scenes. The opening scene, in which two thugs spray The Clownfish Café with bullets, missing their intended victim and all of the patrons, but demolishing a large aquarium, is wonderful, especially the aftermath, when the patrons band together to rescue the gasping fish by emptying their wine glasses, filling them with water, and scooping up this displaced clown fish and angelfish.
The humor and general ridiculousness of the plot may balance out the book’s annoying aspects, and like Karl and Candy with their potential marks, I’m willing to give “The Way of All Fish” the benefit of the doubt. But while this perplexing book does make for an entertaining way to pass the time as you huddle under your comforter to combat the ice age we’re experiencing, I’m reluctant to suggest that you shell out $27 for the hardcover edition. Knowing what I know now, I should have bided my time and waited for the paperback version.