Foul Matter Analysis

Foul Matter (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Martha Grimes is best known for her eighteen Richard Jury mysteries, in which the English detective, with his aristocratic cohort Melrose Plant, brings murderers to justice. In contrast, several characters in Foul Matter try to prevent a murder, often with hilarious results. Inspired in part by having one of her Jury novels rejected by publisher Alfred A. Knopf, Grimes has written a wicked satire of the publishing industry in which the most dangerous weapons are the egos of the writers, agents, editors, and publishers.

Paul Giverney is an immensely successful thriller writer. Not only do his books sell, but they are also well-written, especially his latest. Paul’s agreement with his publisher, Queeg and Hyde, is about to expire, and he is looking for a new publisher. Grimes’s satire is sometimes subtle and sometimes not. Naming Paul’s publisher after the incompetent naval officer in Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny (1951) and the villainous side of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll makes clear that she sees publishers as neurotic and potentially psychotic.

Paul proposes to Clive Esterhaus, an acquisitions editor at New York publisher Mackenzie-Haack, that he will join “Mack Hack” if Ned Isaly is dropped. Mackenzie-Haack is respected as a highly literary publisher, and Ned, despite modest sales, is one of its most distinguished writers. He is scheduled to submit a manuscript soon but cannot devise an end to his novel and is coming dangerously close to his deadline. Most publishers and writers ignore such deadlines, but Clive sees Ned’s deadline as a possible way to appease Paul, who does not explain the motive for his request. Such a maneuver, however, is not enough for Clive’s boss, the ruthless Bobby Mackenzie. Bobby decides upon a more direct way of ridding himself of Ned—having him killed.

Bobby coerces Clive into approaching Danny Zito, a retired gangster in a federal witness-protection program whose memoir was published by Mackenzie-Haack. Danny puts Clive into contact with Candy and Karl, who work as a team. Candy and Karl, however, have standards. They will not kill anyone who they do not believe deserves it, so they begin reading Paul’s and Ned’s books and following Ned around.

Clive develops serious misgivings about his actions and hires Blaze Pascal to watch Ned’s back. Paul merely wanted to see how far a publisher would go and never contemplated the possibility of Ned’s being killed. When he discovers what has transpired, he hires Arthur Modred to protect Ned. Ned tries to break the writer’s block that keeps him from finishing his novel by making a nostalgic visit to Pittsburgh, his hometown. When he goes, Candy, Karl, Blaze, Arthur, Clive, and Paul follow.

Also making the journey are Ned’s best friends, Saul Prouil, an award-winning novelist, and Sally, a Mackenzie-Haack office worker. By chance, Dwight Staines, “the leading execrable horror writer in the country,” is in Pittsburgh on a book tour. The characters’ paths cross several times as they watch one another watch Ned, who spends most of his time staring into space trying to devise an end to his book. When one nervous watcher draws a gun, hilarious slapstick ensues, a kind controlled chaos reminiscent of British author Tom Sharpe at his best.

A minor subplot involves Paul’s decision to change agents. He dumps Mort Durban, who cares more about money than his clients’ welfare, in favor of Jimmy McKinney, a poet who works for Durban’s firm. With Paul’s encouragement, Jimmy visits a writers’ retreat in hopes of reenergizing his writing. This ill-fated sojourn gives Grimes the opportunity to demonstrate that writers would rather eat, drink, and have sex than write.

Foul Matter is an equal-opportunity satire, making writers, editors, publishers, agents, and the reading public, represented by Candy and Karl, all seem foolish and misguided to varying degrees. Grimes’s major target is publishing. Clive is an editor who has forgotten how to edit. Editors strive to make “editorial errors look like brave risks.” Contracts always favor publishers. They are cynical, considering only perhaps a “dozen honest-to-God...

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Foul Matter (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Best-selling thriller writer Paul Giverney is between publishers, and instead of having them bid for his services, he makes a modest proposal to Mackenzie-Haack. If egomaniacal publisher Bobby Mackenzie and editor Clive Esterhaus will agree to dump Ned Isaly, a very literary novelist with modest sales who is about to submit his next book, Paul will sign with their firm.

While Clive struggles with the moral and ethical ramifications of this dilemma, Bobby, without hesitation, sees a solution: hiring hit men to take out Ned. What Bobby does not count on, however, is that contract killers can have higher standards than publishers, editors, agents, and writers. Author Martha Grimes masterfully cuts back and forth between Paul, Ned, Clive, Bobby, and their cohorts and Candy and Karl, the colorful hit men who strive to know their marks intimately before deciding if they deserve to die.

Best known for her Richard Jury mysteries, set mostly in England, Grimes has written not a whodunit but a will-they-do-it? In addition to poking fun at the New York literary world, Grimes takes on the Manhattan restaurant scene and paints a nostalgic portrait of Pittsburgh, the hometown of Grimes and several of her characters.

Best of all is the highly quotable dialogue of Candy and Karl, thugs with pretensions who quickly catch on to the argot of publishing. They resemble a merging of the hit men in Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers” and Chili Palmer, the protagonist of Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty (1990) and Be Cool (1999). Grimes’s blending of characterization, humor, action, and style recalls Leonard at his best. Foul Matter is a wickedly delightful look at egos that cannot be stopped—except, perhaps, by a bullet.

Review Sources

Booklist 99, no. 22 (August 1, 2003): 1925.

Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 13 (July 1, 2003): 876.

Library Journal 128, no. 13 (August 15, 2003): 131.

The New York Times, August 17, 2003, Section 7, p. 15.

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 28 (July 14, 2003): 55.

USA Today, September 3, 2003, p. D4.