The Terribly English Mysteries of Martha Grimes Are a Welcome Addition to the Pub-Lic Domain

updated 02/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

With her tea-rose complexion and passion for overgrown gardens, elegant, ladylike Martha Grimes could be a well-bred Englishwoman. It happens, however, that she is American, and when she goes to Britain twice a year for a visit, she does more than trip delicately through the countryside. Grimes, 50ish, hangs out in pubs. "Pubs are the heart of England," she says. "You can learn about the entire life of a town or neighborhood by spending time in the local pub. When I am in America, I miss them terribly." Nevertheless, Grimes wouldn't want to live in England because, she says, "it might overwhelm my imagination."

As it is, her fertile mind works double time making up malevolent deeds that occur in her beloved England. Sitting in her cozy condominium on Washington's Capitol Hill, she spins out gracefully written mystery novels with titles like The Old Fox Deceiv'd, Jerusalem Inn and Help the Poor Struggler—all taken from the names of English pubs. In the latest, I Am the Only Running Footman (Little, Brown, $15.95), a young woman is found strangled with her own scarf outside a London pub with the same name as the book's title. A best-seller, Footman has helped cement Grimes's reputation as an American successor to Agatha Christie. The comparison both flatters and annoys her. "Every woman who writes a British mystery gets compared to Agatha Christie," says Grimes. "She's an absolutely brilliant plotter and incredible when it comes to drawing clues across the page. However, her characters, you feel, are there for the sake of the plot."

Grimes's sleuths and victims, on the other hand, come across as real people. The two regulars in her fiction are tall, handsome Detective Superintendent Richard Jury, an inflamer of female hearts, and his aristocratic friend Melrose Plant, who gave up a peerage because of some dark secret. Most of the novels also feature a savvy, self-sufficient child. "Children see things we adults have been taught to ignore," explains Grimes, "and because they are unpredictable, they make perfect characters in fiction."

Their presence in her novels is also, she says, an autobiographical touch representing "my leftover childhood." Martha's father died when she was a child, leaving her mother to work long hours operating a summer resort. Left to her own resources in their western Maryland home, Martha developed the self-reliance she ascribes to her juvenile characters. She received a master's in English from the University of Maryland and studied poetry at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. She then began teaching English at various schools, including Montgomery College and Johns Hopkins. A brief marriage produced a son, Kent Holland, now a senior at the University of Iowa.

Grimes's love affair with the British Isles grew out of a romance with an English writer. Though the relationship fell apart, her affection for the land remained solid. Grimes also grew fond of English mysteries. As a little-known poet, she realized that the images in her work dripped with blood and death. Says Grimes: "I decided that, considering my subject matter, I should take a crack at murder mysteries."

It took eight years of rejection slips, however, before Grimes got lucky. In 1979 an editor at Little, Brown came across Grimes's The Man With a Load of Mischief in the slush pile. The book was published two years later, and seven more have come out since then. Grimes manages to be so prolific by writing four pages a day ("even if it's garbage"). She works without an outline. "When I start writing, I really don't have a central murder in mind," she claims. "Slowly the murders come, and the detectives find amazing ways to solve them."

Currently, Grimes is at work on The Five Bells and Bladebone. She has plotted the murder, and she and her lady-killing Detective Jury can't wait to find out whodunit. Says Grimes: "I like the idea of finding out when Jury finds out, but he's having a hell of a time right now, I can tell you."

From Our Partners