Thirty-something years ago, Martha Grimes was a single mom with a drinking problem.
She bought vodka – Smirnoff, Stolichnaya — in half-gallon jugs. She taught English 101 at Montgomery College in Takoma Park, a job she couldn’t stand. She argued so vehemently with post office clerks about mailing rates for her manuscripts — she wanted the cheaper book rate — that her son, embarrassed, preferred to wait in the car.
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:
“It had been snowing for two days all over Northamptonshire, all over the north of England, indeed — lovely, soft stuff, which mounded on roofs and settled in corners of windows whose leaded panes were turned to squares of gold and ruby by reflected firelight. With the snow coming down and the smoke rising up from the chimney pots, Long Piddleton looked like a Christmas card of itself, despite the recent murder.”
That’s her signature. The romanticized British village (the chimney pots, the leaded panes) with the homicide kicker. Said victim was found choked with a stretch of wire, his head and shoulders stuffed in a waist-high barrel of beer.
“I certainly never thought it would be a series of books,” she says of her beginning. “I didn’t look any further than trying to get it published. I was just pretty relentless about sending it out and getting rejection slips.”
On a recent chilly afternoon, Grimes is sitting on a couch in the living room of her two-story Bethesda home. A fire burns in the fireplace. Two cats, Boonie and Sidneyy, rescue animals from a nearby shelter stroll about the room filled with books and knick-knacks and comfortable chairs. The kitchen has two cat food bowls on the floor and a water dish. It’s as unpretentious and welcoming as your grandma’s house, if only your grandma wrote bestselling crime novels in which people get murdered.
“My schedule is shot to hell, ever since I got this house,” Grimes is saying, dropping into a story about contractors and never-ending renovations that have gone on since she moved in two years ago. “Now I write a good bit at night, which I don’t really like to do. It’s supposed to be three or four pages a day, but it’s often not.”
You know why this bothers her?
Because here’s how a middle-age woman with no prospects, a teenage son and a dead-end job rewrote her life’s narrative after age 50: by busting her butt and by sticking to schedules.
Grimes has published at least a book a year every year for three decades, and right now she’s finishing up two: a new Jury mystery, “Vertigo 42,” and “The Way of All Fish,” a sequel to her dark (some said mean-spirited) satire of the publishing industry, “Foul Matter.” She’s also shopping an already-finished memoir, “Double, Double,” about the alcohol addictions she and her son, Holland, each recovered from two decades ago.
Never shy about protecting her turf — she has, over the years, feuded with a writer she accused of appropriating her main characters (Elizabeth George), and penned the score-settling “Foul” — she has also been been fighting in court recently with a former agent, over contract details.
Amid all this, she’s working on “Best in Shelter,” an online dog show she’s creating to raise money for local animal shelters. Four dogs from four shelters will compete online for votes over Father’s Day weekend, June 14 to 17. The total purse of $105,000 will be split among the shelters, with $50,000 going to the shelter with the winning dog.
“People tend to think of shelters as run-down places with ill-mannered animals,” she says. “We think the dogs on the show will really impress people. We’re hoping it leads to a lot of adoptions.”
The animal-rights work has been her most prominent social concern for years. “Biting the Moon,” a novel about two abandoned girls out West and the horror show of animal abuses they witness, was published in 1999; Grimes, a vegetarian, donated a significant chunk of the proceeds to related charities.
Colleen Learch, a board member and volunteer at Arlington’s Lost Dog & Cat Rescue Foundation, one of the participating shelters, thinks the show will be a hit.
“I can’t count up how many spays and neuters, not to mention life-saving medical treatments, this will pay for,” she says. “It’s enormous.”
Crime writing is not an enterprise that one would have picked for the daughter of the city solicitor for Pittsburgh, born during the Great Depression. Her mother’s family owned the Mountain Lake Park Hotel (recast as the fictional “Hotel Paradise” in a 1996 novel) in the far western reaches of Maryland, and the family spent summers there.
But her father died when she was 6, and the family’s finances tumbled. Her mother, June, took her and her brother to help run the hotel but it eventually went out of business and was demolished.
She got her undergraduate degree and master’s from the University of Maryland and took classes at the University of Iowa’s writing program (she focused on poetry). She migrated back to Maryland, where she met and married Van Holland, when both were teaching at Frostburg State.
The couple divorced when their only child, Kent, was a toddler. She landed the Montgomery College gig in the early 1970s.
“I think we probably moved five or six times by the time I was 6,” says Kent Holland, now a public relations executive in the District. “The financial pressure was tremendous.”
Frustrated as a poet, Grimes noticed that most of her poems were about violence, had a strong narrative arc and “read like poems written by someone who should be writing prose.” She loved the mystery novels of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, and found the idea of writing them herself compelling.
Writing in the morning, before or between classes, often sitting in bed and writing on a yellow legal pad, she penned a mystery about “an American English professor who ties up with a couple of other people, not exactly crooks, and they steal various things.”
It was never published, but did contain the forerunner of Melrose Plant, the aristocrat in Long Piddleton who helps Jury solve mysteries. “Mischief” was published to scant but polite reviews and had a print run of just 3,000 copies, but it suddenly gave her life a new star to steer by.
“If you’re looking for a can’t-to-can moment, that was it,” says Kent Holland.
There was also the matter of her “maintenance” vodka drinking. She had a drink or three just about every day during the late 1970s and 1980s, plus the occasional glass of wine. Mother and son agree that she never really got falling-down drunk but that the vodka made her extremely argumentative, a habit that was exacerbated when Holland moved off to college and she found herself alone (and lonely) in her house.
Holland, meanwhile, on his own for the first time, says he drank to problematic excess in college.
He went to 12-step programs; she did two stints at the Kolmac Clinic, the final trip in 1990.
The drinking didn’t interfere with her career, which was soaring. First runs of her novels were 100,000. They were picks of the Literary Guild and the Mystery Book Club. Her advances were in the mid-six figures.
“She writes, as always, with charm, authority and ironic wit,” Kirkus Reviews said of “The Old Silent.”
She was also getting comfortable with her manner of building a book.
The constants were Jury, Plant, a pub that figures prominently in a grisly murder or two, and a generous sense of storytelling centered on characters and scenery.
The language was stylish (a thin policeman with a red face looked like “an apple on a stick”) and the tongue was firmly in cheek in observations of village life. She has never been strong on plot.
“I don’t write outlines, and I don’t write summaries. I don’t know what the end is until I get there. I have a funny feeling that the book is already in the subconscious, and I’m just sort of excavating to find it.”
Sarah Fogle, a professor of humanities at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and the contributing editor of “Martha Grimes Walks Into a Pub,” a 2010 collection of essays about her work, says Grimes was part of group of women (Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky), who started take crime fiction in new directions in the 1980s.
“She’s combined manners with mean streets into a unique blend of the cozy and hard-boiled styles, and she’s known for her humor and wonderful child characters,” Fogle says. “She’s also published other novels and a book of poetry. While her work has always been popular, it hasn’t gotten the critical attention it deserves.”
This week, Grimes will be back to writing in her quiet house in a quiet American suburb, a few miles and another world from where a younger version of herself flipped through a book of photographs of British pubs and had a life-changing idea. It’s what the Lady with Two Cats does.