Martha Grimes, Woman of Mystery
Bethesda Magazine interview
Photo by Michael Ventura
Crime does pay. Or so it seems, judging from the highly successful career of Bethesda’s Martha Grimes.
The award-winning novelist has written 22 mysteries featuring Scotland Yard detective Richard Jury and his aristocratic sidekick, Melrose Plant (her 23rd will come out in the summer of 2014). She has penned two other popular series—four books featuring 12-year-old amateur sleuth Emma Graham and two featuring animal welfare activist Andi Oliver. And she just finished a sequel to Foul Matter (NAL Trade), her 2004 satire of the publishing industry.
Now the 82-year-old is turning the spotlight on herself with a memoir detailing her early days as a martini-swilling mother raising a son with drug problems and his own drinking issues. Grimes, who has been sober for more than 20 years, co-wrote Double Double, A Dual Memoir of Alcoholism (Scribner, June 2013) with her son. A public relations executive who lives in Chevy Chase, he used a pseudonym to tell his side of the story.
We spoke with her in the comfortably cluttered living room of her recently renovated Bethesda colonial—where she continues to handwrite her stories in notebooks, ensconced on the sofa in her bathrobe, a glass of Pellegrino at her side. Sydney and Boonie, her two beloved rescue cats, lounged nearby.
Q & A
Last summer, the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) selected you for the highly coveted Grand Master Award, which represents the “pinnacle of achievement” in mystery writing. How did you react?
You know, I was absolutely flabbergasted. I couldn’t believe it when they told me I was getting this award. It was probably a condolence award because I had never been nominated for an Edgar [Award] in all the years I have been writing. [Years ago] my then-editor and I were sitting in his apartment in New York. We were throwing back martinis. And I said to him—at this point, I think I’d published maybe 10 or 11 Jury mysteries—“Ray, don’t you think it’s peculiar that I have never been nominated for an Edgar?” And he said, “Well, I guess they didn’t like your books.”
At the awards dinner, [author] Sandra Brown, who was the president of MWA [at the time], said that she had never been nominated. Who knows why? I didn’t want to say, “Well, Sandra, I guess they didn’t like your books.”
So I imagine when this next Grand Master thing came up, they were all sitting around and saying, “Well, what about Martha Grimes? She’s getting pretty old, and we’ve never nominated her for anything. Don’t you think maybe we should?”
Your success as a novelist came late in life, after you spent years teaching college English classes. Why did you decide to start writing mysteries?
When the first [Jury] book was published [in 1981], I guess I was 50. I had a teaching assistantship at the University of Iowa. I got into the poetry workshop and I wrote poetry for maybe 10 years. I had poetry published in some magazines, various journals. I never had a book [of poetry] published until after I’d published several Jury mysteries. It was Send Bygraves [Putnam Adult, 1989], which I loved. It never caught on.
This was sort of a mystery in poetry form. It was about a Scotland Yard inspector, Bygraves, who was always turning up in odd places. It’s a satire on the British way of life: You’ve got these characters, like Bobby and Bunch, who play tennis all the time, and you’ve got conversation between them that they’ve found a body and stuff like that. But it gets to be more and more serious after a while.
This book actually is the reason I started writing mysteries. I can still remember this “aha” moment. The first poem in the book was originally called “Waiting for the Hit Man.” I finished writing it and I asked myself: Are you sure you wouldn’t rather write prose mysteries? And that’s how I started writing this Jury series.
Why did you set the series in England, considering you grew up in Maryland and knew little about the British way of life?
When I do book tours, I still get people who are astonished that I have an American accent. The reason I tried British mysteries is because I liked to read them. And I liked that setting, that milieu. It didn’t occur to me that maybe I shouldn’t, that is: What do you know about Britain?
One of my favorite letters is a letter that I wrote to New Scotland Yard after I’d published three or four books. I asked if it would be possible to see it the next time I went to London. I got a letter back from an inspector, maybe. The first thing he said was, “I’d like to point out that Scotland Yard is not like your FBI. We do not do tours.” And he went on to suggest that I set my books in the United States, using a police force that I knew something about, which of course made me howl with laughter. I know nothing about American police forces, nothing at all. He was of no help whatsoever, except to tell me to lay off.
Why do you think your mysteries have been so popular, given that some people don’t consider them authentic?
Some of the nicest letters I’ve ever gotten were from Brits. I have gotten a couple from Brits [that] were nasty put-downs, but for the most part, people feel that the books are authentic. I think one thing I do have is kind of an ear for British speech patterns, something I do not have for American speech patterns. I think these books were extremely successful—the first maybe 10 or 11 of them—because there just weren’t any books like this being written in the United States. And probably, except for P.D. James, [there aren’t many] other British writers that a lot of Americans would be familiar with.
Do you research your books?
I’m no good when it comes to asking professionals questions, largely because I feel like I’m wasting their time.
When I go to England—and I do this once, sometimes twice a year—I never stay very long. I don’t take notes. The only research I do is the accidental coming upon of a pub, the name of which I think is just fantastic. And then I go in—and that’s the research.
I like to sort of sit around and let it seep in, and I’ve got a fairly good memory for English settings, places I’ve been. Any research I do, I do back here.
The Jury books are all named after British pubs. Why is that?
Because of their names. They’re incredibly intriguing. And many of these books, maybe even most of them, have been written purely on the basis of names. Take The Old Silent. I saw a picture [of that pub] in a book and I thought: What an incredible name.
And the plots?
I never have a plot before I start writing. I usually have the setting, because ordinarily I use the pub in its current setting. The Old Silent (Little, Brown and Co., 1989) was in Yorkshire and I Am the Only Running Footman (Little, Brown and Co., 1986) was set in Mayfair. I was walking in Mayfair and I came upon that [pub] sign and I thought, Oh, my god. I get so intrigued by names. Names of villages. Names of streets. Just names that for some reason really turn me on.
In your memoir, you write that a psychiatrist speculated that you named your books after British pubs because of the role that drinking played in your life.
He was absolutely right. My answer to him was: “We don’t have anything like this in the United States.” The atmosphere of a pub seems to be so homelike, so welcoming, so attractive—and you’ve got all these people sitting around, many of whom are regulars. They’re so congenial and the beer is so good that it is a real winner all around.
When I stopped drinking and I kept on going into pubs, I found that a great deal of charm had drained out of them. I haven’t been drinking for 20 years, so I certainly have been into the pubs whose names I have used. But I’ll get a Pellegrino, or something like that, and I’ll sit there for a while. I can still pick up stuff that is worth using. But they don’t really have that pull, that wonderful magnetism they used to have. I mean, it’s a real killer. I love Guinness, and the Guinness in pubs you have from a tap is so gorgeous. Just to sit there and watch it being pulled is an aesthetic experience for me.
Although you were a heavy drinker for years, you write that it didn’t interfere with your daily life or your work. In fact, you later wondered why you needed to quit.
That’s true. One publisher who read the manuscript made the comment that he really liked the book. He said there was only one problem: “You need more of a description of hitting bottom.” I never did hit bottom in the sense that hitting bottom, I imagine, would be almost a lack of function.
So why did you stop?
The reason I stopped was because something else was controlling me. I would say to myself, “So I’m not going to drink until Thursday” or something. Ha, ha, ha. I’d wind up drinking on Tuesday.
You’re working on your 23rd Richard Jury mystery. What’s it like living with these characters for so long?
I never get tired of these characters. Never. [But] I wouldn’t be able to write Jury books and no other books. I absolutely would not be able to do it. It’s not because I don’t like the characters. It’s not because I don’t like the setting, anything like that. It’s because I really do not like the mystery form.
But you’ve built a career writing mysteries.
I just realized this recently. The reason I don’t like it is because it is artificial. A mystery is a story in which there is a person—either an official or an amateur detective or some kind of detective—and in the course of the story, the reader is invited to solve this puzzle before the end of the book. The reader is asked to do this through a proliferation of clues. The other books that I write, I hate to say, they’re easier. But this [Jury] book that I’m writing right now, it is total murder, if you’ll excuse the expression. It is appallingly difficult to write. Because these things have to dovetail and I’ve got to get all of these elements going together.
What’s going to happen to Richard Jury? Will he retire or are you going to kill him off?
I don’t have a plan. I just go book by book. It never occurred to me to kill him off, although at the end of The Blue Last (Viking Penguin, 2001), everyone thought I had. He was lying on a dock and he was bleeding, and that’s the way it ended. It did look like I’d killed him off. I got some very panicked mail from readers. But if they had been reading carefully, they would have figured out that he would be saved.
If you could only write one of your series, which would it be?
That will never happen. But if somebody said that, I would write the animal welfare books.
Do you have a favorite among your books?
My favorite books: I’d say, Dakota (Viking Adult, 2008) is the first, and the second is The Old Wine Shades (Viking Penguin, 2006), the 20th Richard Jury book. I loved that book. The villain is the only interesting villain I’ve ever come up with. And indeed, I like him so much [that] he’s turned up in every other book. It makes some people really mad. His name is Harry Johnson and they want to know, “When is Richard Jury going to catch Harry Johnson?” And I say, “Maybe never.”
What brought you to Bethesda—a community that hardly seems likely to inspire murder and mayhem—after living for nearly 20 years on Capitol Hill?
I’ve lived here about three years. I had been wanting to get away from Capitol Hill for years. My son moved to Chevy Chase, and I have two grandchildren. I just thought it would be nice to live much closer to them. My mother lived in Bethesda in the ’70s and early ’80s, so I’m very familiar with it. But I’ll tell you, if my mother could see it now—talk about jaw-dropping, the difference between now and the ’70s, even the ’80s. It’s Restaurant City. It’s very nice in many ways, but the parking. …It’s harder to park in Bethesda than it is in Dupont Circle.
Julie Rasicot is the magazine’s associate editor.