She was in her late 40s. She had never published anything.
Ten days ago, the 81-year-old crime-writing doyenne accepted the Mystery Writers of America’s highest award, the Grand Master, joining legendary honorees such as Agatha Christie, John le Carre and Elmore Leonard. She has sold some 10 million copies of her books in the United States alone. Her catalogue lists 31 titles. She has been published in 17 countries. She’s big in Germany.
She did almost all of this after she was retired, sober and over 50. Her name did not appear on a bestseller list until she was 56. She didn’t make serious money until she was 60.
“I was in a real estate office when they called and told me [about the award] and I nearly fell over,” she says.
She’s tall, slender, slightly reserved, possessed of a throaty laugh and a voice lightly pocked by spasmodic dysphonia. She’s a Pittsburgh girl who grew up in western Maryland among faded gentility. She has that sort of wit.
Larry Light, executive vice president of Mystery Writers, says her late-in-life burst of creativity has reworked, if not reinvented, the traditional British mystery that skips the blood and guts and sex. This is known as a “cozy” in the trade — novels about quaint villages with quirky murders and an urbane detective who sorts out the killer from a list of odd if not endearing suspects.
“She writes in that tradition, but her books have plenty of blood and guts and sex, along with being funny,” he says. “She’s changed how it’s done.”
The award comes with prestige, a banquet in New York and a small bust of Edgar Allan Poe, the association’s patron saint.
Grimes has written non-mystery books set in other places, but she’s best known for her series involving Scotland Yard detective Richard Jury, who has solved murders in 22 books, most often in small-town Britain.
These books draw their titles from the names of pubs or bars that figure in the investigations. The first, “The Man With a Load of Mischief,” was set in the fictional village of Long Piddleton (she has a wickedly sly sense of humor) and published in 1981; the most recent, “The Black Cat,” is set in the village of Chesham, in 2010.
All of this started in 1977, when she was sitting in a Bethesda Hot Shoppes diner, flipping through a book about English pubs. She saw the “Mischief” establishment and thought it would be a nifty title.
It would be another four years before the book was published. She had no agent. She shipped the manuscript to publishers and hoped someone would read it. Someone at Little, Brown finally did.
It was an effort partly born of her love of mystery novels and partly of her affection for British villages, which she had only sometimes visited. So she sat down one morning after her Hot Shoppes moment of enlightenment and created a world that looked like this: