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Old Faces, New Place For Detective Jury

BEFORE there was the sitcom, there was the detective mystery. The success formula of each is much the same: a regular cast of often-eccentric characters around a likeable, gifted central figure operating from a recognizable locale.

It worked for Sherlock Holmes and for Cheers. Part of the key to reader and viewer loyalty is familiarity: One feels at home in this fictional place and with these characters and wants to see how they react to and resolve the next challenge they face.

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Martha Grimes has created such a world with her Richard Jury mysteries. In her latest, "The Horse You Came In On," the fun is, as always, with the characters that readers of her novels have come to know well. The star is Superintendent Jury of Scotland Yard, sparring with the irascible Chief Superintendent Racer. At home, Jury coexists with Mrs. Wassermann, the war refugee on the floor below, and Carole-anne Palutski, a young and somewhat flaky aspiring actress above. On the road, the hypochondriac Serge ant Wiggins keeps him company.

Assisting Jury in his investigations is Melrose Plant, an earl who has renounced his title and calls to mind Dorothy Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey. Plant lives in the Northhamptonshire village of Long Piddleton, surrounded by a potpourri of artsy neighbors including Vivian Rivington, the village's most-eligible female, who's been engaged for years now to an Italian count, but for whom Jury has certain feelings.

As always, Grimes's latest mystery is named for a pub in which much of the action takes place; the twist is that this one is located in Baltimore. The death of an elderly woman in London's Tate Gallery has brought Jury to America to investigate the murder of Philip Calvert, a researcher at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.

Plant has come along at the request of a friend he met during the pair's last case, who wants him to look into the death of Beverly Brown, her student at Johns Hopkins University. Before her death, Brown claimed to have discovered a lost Edgar Allan Poe manuscript. Opinion at the university is split over whether or not it is genuine. Throw into this mix the killing of a homeless man, John-Joy, which may be connected with Brown's murder, and the stage is set.

Grimes, who is a Maryland resident herself, manages to drop entertaining bits of Baltimore lore all over the place: Who is the stranger who brings flowers to Poe's grave each year on his birthday? Will Baltimore ever get a National Football League team again? The characters also visit the National Aquarium and Oriole Park at Camden Yards as well as Fells Point and various other "Bawlmer" locales.

Grimes also gets mileage out of the collision of British and American cultures here, especially as the aristocratic Plant navigates around town with a taxi driver whose historical narration is a bit off.

Readers should be warned that the language often descends to the level of the street - perhaps a more often than is necessary. I wouldn't rate this as Grimes's best Jury mystery, but it's entertaining nonetheless. Old fans will not be disappointed; "The Horse You Came In On," should win Grimes some new ones.

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