Grey Matters by Clea Simon (F SIM Main)
Reviewed by Jeanne
Since it’s well known that I am owned by multiple cats, it’s no surprise that I’d seek out this series about a woman who receives messages from a ghost cat. It’s also no surprise that I enjoyed it. The surprise is that this mystery is firmly rooted in reality, no “Ghost Whisperer” nor “Medium” otherworldly intervention in discovering whodunit.
Dulcie Schwartz, the grad student we first met in Shades of Grey, is up against a deadline that may determine her future. Her advisor is pressuring her to show “significant progress” on her doctorial thesis. If she fails to do so, she could lose the grants which allow her to stay in school. The problem is that Dulcie feels she HAS made progress, more than enough progress, but Professor Bullock doesn’t seem to think so. Actually, Dulcie has serious doubts that he’s even read her notes and he doesn’t seem to remember from time to time what they’ve discussed.
It doesn’t help that Dulcie’s friends, including her boyfriend, all seem to be too wrapped up in their own lives to offer her much solace. She still misses her beloved Mr. Grey, the late feline who was her confidant, and friend. Since his demise, Dulcie feels that he’s also been something of an advisor, albeit a very cryptic one—a fact she’s keeping mostly to herself. People seem to behave very oddly when told about communications from departed pets; and Dulcie’s reputation is already a bit tarnished by being one of those English majors with her head lost in mists of early Gothic romance.
She comes down to earth when she stumbles upon the corpse of a fellow grad student littering the path to Professor Bullock’s house. Cameron Dessay had been handsome, charming, and apparently well-heeled, on the fast track to a degree. He had a fancy car, fancy clothes and a playboy reputation, but could any of these things have resulted in murder?
Not that this is any of Dulcie’s business, not really. She just has a cat’s curiosity. Besides, Dessay’s death is affecting her department in strange ways and there seems to be something going on with Professor Bullock, upon whom Dulcie’s future largely depends. As she tries to unravel these mysteries, Dulcie becomes aware that a lot of people around her seem to be keeping secrets. The question is, which of these are dangerous?
I found Grey Matters to be even better than the first book. There is much to like. Dulcie herself to start, a bookish heroine with her head as much in literature as in her own life. Now able to deal with the loss of Mr. Grey, she’s more able to focus on her studies but still a bit adrift in her personal life. The new supporting characters/suspects are interesting: Polly, an adoring student who has served as an aide for the Professor for so long that no one is sure she is actually a student anymore; seemingly nice guy Lloyd, who shares an office with Dulcie but who doesn’t share a lot of information; Gosham, the rare book dealer and restorer who seems to have more than a professional interest in Polly; and Raleigh, the annoyingly beautiful and brainy English major who seems to be vaulting over others on her way to the top. Lucy, Dulcie’s mother who lives on a commune and believes herself to be psychic, is another favorite character. The star, of course, is Mr. Grey, Dulcie’s late feline companion. He dispenses advice in a patient but somewhat distant manner, allowing Dulcie to figure out situations on her own, rather like Master Po and Grasshopper. The academic setting is another plus for me, reminding me of my student days. (We won’t discuss how very long ago that was.)
I also liked the fact that Dulcie doesn’t set out to solve the murder. At times I’m willing to suspend disbelief and allow that bookstore owner/author/caterer/whatever can become involved in one murder after another, but on occasion I do pause and wonder why on earth the police are letting Mary Smith question felons. Dulcie’s contacts with suspects are natural and reasonable.
Then there’s the matter of “woo woo,” the supernatural elements of the story. In the first book, Simon tried to leave doubt in the reader’s mind as to whether or not Dulcie really was hearing from Mr. Grey. In this book, she drops that sort of pretense but refrains from using the ghost cat as a deus ex machina, solving all the mysteries. In fact, Mr. Grey probably isn’t at all interested in anyone except Dulcie and he seems to regard her as a kitten who needs to find her own way. The little twist at the end utterly delighted me. Frankly, I liked the change: I don’t like it when an author drags out the “is it real or not?” over multiple books. I feel they need to commit, one way or the other, and decide if there is a supernatural element or if there is not. Simon has made her choice and I approve. Mr. Grey is a much less intrusive guide than, say, Aunt Dimity, so people who don’t care for ghostly characters shouldn’t find it a problem. No crimes are solved due to otherworldly intervention. (No disrespect to Aunt Dimity is intended, by the way. I do enjoy Nancy Atherton’s series, but some folks just don’t want to read a mystery with ghostly interventions.)
There’s a bit of a twist at the end, nothing earth-shattering, but it certainly has me anxious for more. The next one will be a definite Must Read for me!