"No, I'm not English, but nothing quickens my imagination more than a fog-bound moor, windy heath, river mist in an old fishing village, and the names of British pubs like The Stargazey," Martha Grimes has written, and it's this quirk of hers that has made her one of the best loved modern practitioners of the venerable whodunit.
All of the titles in Grimes's bestselling Richard Jury series are taken from actual pubs, and all of them feature said pub in some fashion. "I can imagine the end of British hope and glory, but not the end of the British pub," she explains. So, too, it is hard to imagine the end of these deft, witty mysteries, begun in 1981 with The Man with a Load of Mischief, featuring a lugubrious Scotland Yard superintendent (Jury) and his art-collecting sidekick (Melrose Plant).
Grimes has a particular talent for combining heavy gloom with an unmistakable humor that's as subtle and dry as a soda cracker – a good thing, since the Jury casebook tends to be dark, twisted, and rather gruesome. But she always infuses her characters with human motivations and is careful to set up a chain of clues that ultimately discloses them. In addition, she's been known to thread in an unlikely theme here and there – NFL football, poetry references, animal rights, even hormone replacement therapy.
It's clear that Grimes likes to stretch her legs a bit, bringing Jury and his eccentric friends Stateside for a few cases and occasionally foraying beyond the series with novellas, standalones, and some interconnected literary fiction featuring teenage heroines. No doubt these changes of pace help keep the author's skills sharp and honed and ensure for her a wider and more growing readership.
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Unlike many mystery writers, Grimes does not outline her plots ahead of time or even profess to know where they are headed when she begins writing. "I am not overly concerned with plot as such," she explains on her web site. "Obviously, if you start with a chapter such as the one above and intend the story to proceed from it, you could write yourself into a corner. I always do. In The Case Has Altered, I didn't know until I was nearly finished with it who had killed these women or why."
Grimes's father was city solicitor of Pittsburgh, and her mother owned a hotel in western Maryland. As a girl, she spent half her time in Pittsburgh and the other half at her mother's hotel in a little town called Mountain Lake Park.
Although her western Maryland-set series that began with The End of the Pier has earned its own fans, there's no denying that for most Grimes readers, it's all about Jury. If she needed a reminder of this, she got one in the loads of hate mail she received for abandoning Richard Jury to write Pier.
Grimes has taught creative writing at various colleges, including the small Maryland community school Montgomery College and the more prestigious Johns Hopkins University. Comparing the two in a Washington Post interview, the mordant Grimes noted of JHU, "Not one pompous ass in the whole program ... The pompous asses are at Montgomery College."
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The Art of Balance: Martha Grimes on the Place of Issues in a Novel
"Proselytizing" is something I've been accused of before (with respect to Biting the Moon). But in that instance I began with an issue, the issue of animal welfare. In The Grave Maurice I didn't set out to convert readers to a cause. The issue just happened along, and the issue is something called hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which has been much in the news lately.
This hardly presents itself as a cracking-good subject for the plot of a mystery novel. But it's there (in the subplot) because I stumbled onto it and realized it exactly fits the case of the young heroine who's been raised on a stud farm in Cambridgeshire and who is, consequently, an ardent lover of horses -- what some would call a "horse-whisperer" (although I believe it's the horse, not the human, who is the whisperer).
The news is telling women to get rid of this junk (HRT) because of its effect on the body, always before believed to be salutary, lately found to be malign. All sorts of warnings attach to such drugs now. What we are not hearing, and what animal-rights people have known for a long time, is the back story. I find it strange that the "media," ever alert to what is trashy or tragic, have not reported this. It's a perfect subject for "investigative" journalism: the source of the hormones is pregnant mares' urine. Premarin. Get it? It's the conditions under which these mares are kept -- front and back leg tethered to prevent movement -- in order to produce this hormone that is so appalling; even more appalling is what happens to the foals. Don't worry, there are no graphic descriptions of what happens to the mares and the foals in The Grave Maurice.
I didn't set out to write The Grave Maurice with the intention of converting readers to a cause; the topic of HRT simply presented itself in the course of the writing. I would certainly agree it's difficult to write a book whose theme is some sort of social issue without letting the issue overwhelm the story (i.e., "proselytizing"). I did this in another Richard Jury novel, The Deer Leap. What can happen is that either the story itself detracts from the issue -- and thus the reader barely notices it -- or the issue overwhelms the story, equally bad. So one has to strike a balance between the two, and in this case, if there is any "imbalance" it's on the side of the story, not the issue. A perfect example of keeping things in balance is John Grisham, every one of whose novels centers on a social issue -- the tobacco companies, the insurance companies, the homeless -- and I don't think Mr. Grisham has ever been accused of preaching.
Richard Jury seems to be placed in ever-darker situations. The Blue Last was almost a blackout, and I don't suppose The Grave Maurice is much happier. I really balk at the expectations of some people that a piece of genre fiction should have an upbeat ending.
I don't know. How many upbeat endings have you had?
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