The Poisoned Pen

By Lise Funderburg

August 10, 2003

FOUL MATTER, by Martha Grimes. Viking, 372 pp., $25.95.

Why anyone chooses to become a writer is mysterious enough, considering the low pay, long hours and likely refusal of one’s parents to see the life of letters as an actual profession (at least one that justifies all of that college tuition that might otherwise have been spent on a lovely little vacation cottage within two hours of the city . . . but never mind). In “Foul Matter,” a bantamweight new novel from Martha Grimes, this is only one of the conundrums embedded in a slapstick send-up of the New York publishing world.

Grimes, author of the Richard Jury series, leaves her Scotland Yard inspector on the other side of the Atlantic as she mocks the overly cherished bottom line and the self-importance of celebrity writers.

In Grimes’ Manhattan , bestselling author Paul Giverney sets intrigue in motion with his self-indulgent demand that the Mackenzie-Haack publishing house drop its critically lauded author, Ned Isaly, in exchange for the rights to Giverney’s next two novels.

This is a cynical philosophical exercise on Giverney’s part — he’s testing the “greedy, grasping, immoral and vicious” company to see how low it will stoop for the sake of profit, and he’s challenging Isaly’s dedication to his craft in the face of extreme and undeserved misfortune. How can the house meet Giverney’s terms? Rather than look for contract loopholes, the bourbon-swilling head of the company, Bobby Mackenzie, improbably orders an editor, Clive Esterhaus, to put out a contract on Isaly.

Esterhaus, who knows more about the Four Seasons than felons, turns to a mob-related author, Danny Zito, now in the witness protection program but hiding in plain sight in Chelsea (“Hub of the art scene,” Zito explains to Esterhaus) and in the aisles of Dean & Deluca (“Best produce in town”). Zito comes up with a pair of hit men, but only after Esterhaus dangles a second book contract in front of him. Zito’s no hayseed — he demands a say in the book jacket design and in casting choices when Hollywood eventually and indubitably options the story.

Nearly everyone is a wanna-be author or critic, including assassins Candy and Karl, two thugs who conscientiously trail their mark before deciding whether he deserves to die. In this case, to get a bead on Isaly, Karl reads his latest book, reporting its merits and deficits to Candy in refreshingly succinct terms. “This is a pretty sad story, you know?” Karl opines.

Greed may have great currency in the book world, but not enough to obscure the captivating power of prose. Even as Grimes embroils the reader in ever-complicating mishaps and kooky misunderstandings, she pays sincere tribute to the art of writing, to the romantic struggle between a writer and her imagination, between the words that won’t come and the blank page that begs for them.

THE STORYTELLER, by Arthur Reid. Doubleday, 266 pp., $23.95.

Words come all too easily for the main character in “The Storyteller,” another mystery set in New York ‘s literary world, authored under the nom de plume of Arthur Reid. On the book jacket Reid is purported to be a “longtime New York publishing executive,” but the book’s copyright is assigned to Susan and Howard Kaminsky, she a former Dutton editor and he a former president and publisher of Warner Books, Random House and William Morrow/Avon. The two used a pen name, Kaminsky’s editor told New York Observer columnist Sara Nelson, because their last book didn’t get much attention. Alas, the book’s most promising mystery is solved before page one.

“The Storyteller” follows the career of Steven King, who carries the writing pedigree of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop but opens the book as an unpublished author tending bar in a small Maine town. A stroke of luck and questionable morals land King on the bestseller lists, but to protect his success he must lie to everyone around him, including his publisher, agent and beloved wife. Secrecy leads King into a world of con men, psychopaths and drug-addled weight-lifting sisters.

King develops his own addiction, but not to drugs. Instead, he craves celebrity and fame, limousines and fancy dinners, and finds himself trapped inside a velvet prison of his own making. He alienates his virtuous schoolteacher wife, who stridently turns her back on his displays of wealth. “‘All we had to do was hop in a cab,'” she says to him in a typical exchange, on their way to one of his readings. ” ‘Instead, you have to go and hire a limo. It’s so … showy.’ ” The underpinnings of the plot are outlandish but allow Reid to play on the foibles of the book world, such as when a coffee company (an ersatz Starbucks) offers to pay King $250,000 to be mentioned no less than four times in his next novel. King’s beneficiaries live in fear of their cash cow’s running dry: “You’re not blocked, are you?” the publisher asks whenever King wrinkles his brow.

“The Storyteller” sets out to be a good-natured romp, but its characters are thinly drawn and the dialogue numbingly wooden. King is a simp, easily corrupted and then reformed only under threat of losing his once-devoted wife. Reid might have taken the advice of his own character Ben Chambers, a quirky old salt who befriends the undiscovered young writer. “‘If a reader doesn’t like the central character of a book,'” he tells King, “‘you got problems.'” Indeed.