Martha Grimes never dreamed of becoming a writer. She only knew she was deeply unhappy teaching English at Montgomery College in Takoma Park, where she felt the curriculum was "dumbed down." Grimes had always liked British mysteries--Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers in particular. So she sat down in front of a blank sheet of paper and out popped Scotland Yard detective Richard Jury.
Since her first mystery, "The Man With a Load of Mischief," was published with a modest printing of 3,000 in 1981, Grimes's books have been translated around the globe, three have blossomed into bestsellers and a television series is in development.
A workaholic, charming loner who seems allergic to matrimony, Jury has led the cast of characters in all 16 of the author's popular mysteries, including "The Lamorna Wink," published last month. He broods, he smokes, he drinks, he harbors a soft spot for damsels in distress. Readers just love him and so does Grimes. She claims that no character she has been able to conjure has been worthy of his hand. Jury surrounds himself with an entertaining assortment of oddballs including his two sidekicks, Melrose Plant, a disaffected aristocrat, and the hypochondriac Sgt. Wiggins. There's more humor than fear in most of Grimes's books. The colorful characters often take precedence over the plot.
The question Grimes, who now lives on Capitol Hill, deplores most is why an American writer sets most of her books in England. She doesn't really have a good answer. Grimes became an Anglophile during a love affair while in her twenties. The man left. England stayed.
"I don't know why I liked it so much," she says. "It was a foreign country with no language barrier." She travels there at least once a year to soak in the atmosphere. She doesn't take notes. Someone at a recent reading asked how much research went into her books. "Very little," Grimes answered in her breathy voice, hand flying to cover her mouth as she let out a mock "Whoops!"
Her inspiration and her book titles tap an unlikely source: pub names. "The name will get me thinking," she says, and eventually her pen scratches the itch to write. In the last Jury book, "The Stargazey," the detective spots the pub from atop a double-decker bus traveling down London's busy Oxford Street. Well, that's where Grimes discovered it, too. Once she found the inside (and the Guinness) to her liking, the pub name became a book.
Readers can thank another mystery author, John le Carre, at least indirectly, for "The Lamorna Wink." Le Carre suggested the title about a decade ago when he and Grimes were teaching at Johns Hopkins; the name comes from a pub near his home in Cornwall. "People give you suggestions all the time, but not being John le Carre, they are rarely right," Grimes says.
While most of her mysteries unravel across the pond, Jury has visited Baltimore ("The Horse You Came In On") and Santa Fe ("Rainbow's End"), where the author keeps a second home. She's never seen a Washington bar or restaurant name worthy of a book title, fodder for those who claim this is a dull, dull town.
A tall woman with light blond hair and gray-green eyes, Grimes was born in Pittsburgh and grew up mostly in Western Maryland, where her mother ran an aging resort hotel near Deep Creek Lake. Her father died when she was 6. She's very close to her older brother, Will, who owns an antiques store in Olney. Divorced years ago, Grimes adores her only son, Kent, who lives in New York and conveniently happens to be her publicity agent.
For clues to her early life, the sixty-something writer points to her semi-autobiographical novel, "Hotel Paradise," the story of a spunky 12-year-old pretty much left to her own devices except for the friendship of the kindly local sheriff, a strong and silent type much like Jury. Since he's the only completely invented character in the book, Grimes's childhood seems a little lonely and self-reliant. Her brother reveled in the lack of supervision. Grimes instead felt a lack of attention, although her mother is portrayed in "Hotel Paradise" as harried but not unkind.
She writes in the book, "We children are not allowed to use shortenings: 'Grandma,' 'Mom,' 'Mommy,' 'Dad' and such. It's as if we are meant to keep our relationship at arm's length, formal. Not that my mother--or my father, who's dead now--doesn't love me and my brother; but it's a kind of white-gloved, black-tie, swallow-coated love that walks ahead and holds doors, not the sort that crashes through them."
This early, forced independence prompted Grimes to often write about thick-skinned children without parents. (Jury is an orphan.) One female character, a strong-willed blond teen who knows how to use a gun, appears in three of her books in slightly different guises. "All three of these girls are so focused," says Grimes. "They all have a certain kind of courage, and I certainly don't have that." Then she pauses. "I guess I am determined," she says thoughtfully, perhaps to the dozens of publishers who turned her down before Little, Brown plucked her from the slush pile. "I did get that first book published without any encouragement."
Now she's channeling that determination into widening her writing scope. At a recent Saturday night reading at Borders in Baileys Crossroads, Grimes was supposed to be promoting "The Lamorna Wink." But she really wanted to talk about her next project, a pair of novellas called "Two Trains Departing," set to come out in the spring.
"I can see people start to cringe right there and then," she said. That happens whenever she brings the book up. "There isn't a shred of mystery in these stories."
With Grimes doting on the novellas, there's a sneaking suspicion that Jury's charm has begun to wear thin for her. "Readers seem a little more willing than reviewers and publishers to try non-Jury books," she said to the crowd hopefully.
A few minutes later she asked the group for questions. A hand shot up, signifying the inevitable query about Grimes's protagonists' lack of luck with the ladies. "Are Melrose and Jury ever getting married?" the woman blurted out, a tinge of frustration in her voice. Heads bobbed in assent around the room. Grimes sighs. "I wish you wouldn't ask that question," she says, half jokingly. The other half is disappointment. Will she ever be free?
Jury has snared Grimes in his net. His popularity has imprisoned her as a mystery writer. She receives a smattering of angry letters from fans whenever she tries something new. But she does anyway, using her power as Jury's muse to push her other books into print, even when her publisher doubts they will sell. It's as if she's trying to carve a new identity and prove to herself--and the world--that her imagination goes beyond a London detective with piercing blue eyes.
Grimes's handful of non-Jury books include the most recent, "Biting the Moon," the start of a new series of animal-rights fiction. (She's a vegetarian--no pub food for her.) Then there is "Send Bygraves," a book of poetry. "I'm sure the world is waiting for a sequel," she says dryly. A graduate of the Iowa University Poetry Workshop, Grimes hasn't drummed up any new verse in years. "I'm no good," she says by way of explanation.
What she is good at are mysteries, although to hear Grimes talk, writing them poses a challenge. The reserved but good-natured author says she has no trouble with dialogue or setting the scene. "The hard part is the murder, figuring out why they were done and who did them." In "The Five Bells and Bladebone," Grimes was 50 pages from the end and clueless about the culprit. Then, while she was standing on a corner in her Capitol Hill neighborhood, the solution appeared out of the fog. "I'm sure it's not as haphazard as I'm making it sound," she says almost apologetically. "I'm sure it's more controlled than I know of in the moment."
Luckily for Grimes, mayhem seems to play second fiddle to the characters for her readers. To them, the Jury books are like a favorite television show where each installment offers more insight into the characters' lives. Grimes has been told by fans that between books, they often wonder what Jury and Plant are doing.
That's why "The Lamorna Wink" centers on Melrose Plant, although Richard Jury does materialize in the last third of the book to help tie up loose ends. Fans wrote to Grimes, clamoring to know more about Plant's murky past. She complied. The book follows Plant to Cornwall (unfortunately for him, his irritating Aunt Agatha follows, too), where he rents a creaky house with a mysterious and sad history. While Plant helps solve a string of connected murders, some of his personal history is revealed as well. The New York Times called the book "another atmospheric entry in an elegantly styled series."
Despite her professed lack of research, Grimes does not have difficulty inventing story ideas. She often works on two books at once, switching back and forth whenever she gets stuck. Her day usually starts with a cup of black English tea with hot milk. "Tea has got to be the most reviving drink in the whole world," she says. "Well, a martini's pretty good, too."
Then Grimes returns to bed, where she writes "in spurts" with fountain pens using 14 shades of ink. "My notebook is a veritable rainbow," she notes. "It's something to break the monotony." Sometimes she switches inks to trick herself into thinking she'll write better in a different color. Grimes is not uptight about leaking ink onto her bedspread, either. "It's part of the fun," she says.
Later in the day, she enters her work into the computer. Her cat Blackie, which she got from an animal shelter, keeps her company at night when she watches her favorite television shows, "Law & Order" and, of course, "Mystery!" on PBS. For the record, she never liked "Murder, She Wrote" and loathes any comparisons to the lead character, Jessica Fletcher. After all, Fletcher is just imaginary while Grimes is quite real.
Although Grimes would like to spread her literary wings, she thinks she knows why mysteries appeal to readers more than say, novellas.
"Life is so uncertain, and you probably feel most of the time you don't have any control," she says. "But in a mystery, you know that every question asked is going to get answered, and to your satisfaction."
So for the sake of your readers, Martha Grimes, get thee to a pub.
CAPTION: Jury's in. Fans think it would be a crime if the author stopped writing mysteries, such as her latest.
CAPTION: "The name will get me thinking," says Grimes about pubs near and far.