Since 1981, Martha Grimes has been one of the anchors of mystery fiction. That was the year she introduced readers to Scotland Yard inspector Richard Jury, his aristocratic friend Melrose Plant and the eccentric residents of the postcard town of Long Piddleton in “The Man With a Load of Mischief.” Ever since that debut, Grimes has imprinted her individual stamp on the genre throughout her series. Here was an American-born author writing a British mystery. The novel alternated between a sturdy police procedural on the trail of clever, cold-blooded killers and a quaint village filled with charming, eccentric residents. The themes of obsession, greed, loneliness and animal abuse were balanced by a wide swath of satire, humor and British atmosphere. And to top it off, the novel was named for a real British pub, a device she has used on each entry in the series.
Grimes’ latest novel is “The Old Wine Shades.”
Grimes, who lives in Washington, D.C., also has written a book of poetry, three atmospheric novels featuring a 12-year-old girl set at a Maryland hotel, one novella, a novel about the publishing industry and two other literary novels. Her novels have won the Nero Wolfe Award and two Mystery Guild Awards. “The Man with a Load of Mischief” is on the list of 100 Favorite Mysteries of the Century. Twelve of her mysteries have secured spots on national best-sellers lists, six of them New York Times Best Sellers.
In honor of her 20th Richard Jury novel, we asked Grimes 20 questions about her work during a recent phone interview.
Q. Is it difficult maintaining the continuity of a long-running series?
A. Actually, it isn’t. I have readers tell me that I must be bored, but that’s not true. I am never bored with the characters. I like them. Writing a mystery is more difficult than other kinds of books because a mystery has a certain framework that must be superimposed over the story.
Q. The Jury novels have a timeless quality to them, but do you have a specific era in mind in which they take place?
A. I guess it takes place during the ’90s. The century hasn’t turned for this series. Maybe it never will.
Q. What questions do people ask most about your Jury novels?
A. How old is Richard Jury? It drives people crazy because they don’t know. Jury was either a baby or a very young child during the Second World War so it really disturbs them when they can’t figure it out. And I don’t answer that question. Readers don’t seem to know that a number of these books take place within a few weeks of the last one. People read that one year passes with each book. That’s my time, but not the character’s.
Q. What’s the other thing readers ask most often?
A. When will Richard Jury and Melrose Plant settle down? When Jury finds a woman, she either gets shot, commits suicide or betrays him. I say, ask him. I have no idea. The readers who ask this are, of course, only the women. But if Jury settled down, they wouldn’t like it at all. They only think they want him to form a lasting relationship.
Q. You’ve been writing about Jury for more than 25 years. Anything you wish you had done differently or could change about the series?
A. I wished I had set it in the 1950s. I love the ’50s and I could have avoided the age issue. If I had set it in an earlier period, or even the ’70s, there wouldn’t be all this anxiety about Jury’s age, and he could have actual memories of the Second World War. But, loyal fan that I am, I wouldn’t change anything else. When you write the first book of a series, you do have to be careful what you put in because then you are stuck with it.
Q. Writers often talk about the research that goes into a novel. You visit pubs. A mainstay of the Jury series is that, of course, each novel is titled after a British pub that exists. How do you find these?
A. By accident 80 percent of the time. Like in Mayfair when I spotted the pub called I Am the Only Running Footman. I was absolutely glued to the spot. Or the time I was coming from Salisbury on one of those A roads near Stonehenge and saw the pub Rainbows End and thought ‘oh wow,’ made a left turn and went back to the tiny village.
Q. But one of your novels is named after an American pub.
A. In Baltimore I was walking with a friend who was playing at a pub he kept referring to as the Horse. But when I saw the sign The Horse You Came In On — I thought ‘my God.’ I had no intention of ever setting a Jury novel in the U.S., but when I saw that, I thought that’s it. The names are very important.
Q. And the name of a pub helps you put the plot in motion?
A. Before I write, I always have a name and often the name results in writing the book.
Q. Do people ever suggest pub names?
A. Sometimes people will say I have a great pub name for you — and it will be something like Rose. And I think, by this time don’t you realize what I write?
Q. How much time do you spend in the pubs?
A. I go in, look around and will write one or two notes, mainly about what’s hanging on the walls. After I’ve written a lot of the book, I will go back to England and go back to that pub again. I do that a lot. It’s not so much the pub as the area I want to see again. I want to spend a little more time in the area because it’s the setting itself that’s important.
Q. Do you ever ask permission to use the pub names?
A. No, I don’t need to for one thing, and for another I hate to introduce myself as a writer. But for “The Old Silent,” I thought I would tell them. So I went to the bar where the manager was wiping glasses. They always seem to be wiping glasses. I gave my name and told the manager I was writing a book and would like to use the name in the book. He just kept wiping and finally said, ‘Suit yourself.’ It’s obvious he was really excited. I’ve never asked since.
Q. Do you ever get feedback from the pubs?
A. I Am the Only Running Footman is aware because it’s in Mayfair (section of London) that gets a lot of tourists who will tell the manager they’ve come there because they read the book. A friend was on a walking tour and came to The Lamorna Wink. When he was in the pub he asked whoever was behind the counter if they knew an American writer had used this pub as a setting for a book. The one behind the counter just laughed and said, ‘Didn’t send us a free copy, did she?’ You just can’t win.
Q. But “The Old Wine Shades” is set in a wine bar. Were you tired of beer?
A. Oh, goodness no. I just liked the name.
Q. Your novels show a good comic timing starting with the name of Melrose Plant’s gentlemen’s club — Boring’s. Where does your sense of humor come from?
A. It must have something to do with growing up in a hotel like Emma (the young heroine of her hotel novels). In some sense, humor was forced on me as a means of contending with what was going on around me. I know my brother had an incredible sense of humor.
Q. What television series or movies do you find funny?
A. “The Office,” the British version. “Faulty Towers.” “Absolutely Fabulous.” I realize those are all British. “Seinfeld.” Woody Allen’s first films.
Q. When you are not writing or gadding about in England, what are your main concerns?
A. Animal rights. (Grimes donated two-thirds of her royalties of her 1999 novel “Biting the Moon” to animal abuse organizations across the country.)
Q. How many novels do you have in the works?
A. Right now, three.
Q. Is that normal?
A. No. Most times I have two going on. I am working another Jury novel, a follow up to “Biting the Moon” and a follow to “Foul Matter.”
Q. That doesn’t get wearying?
A. It’s a marvelous outlet. When I get stuck on one, I can just turn around and work on the other. Every (stand-alone novel) seems to turn into a series. (“Hotel Paradise”) was only going to be one novel, but I liked Emma (the young heroine) so much I couldn’t stop writing about her.
Q. The stories never run together?
A. I think of it as what happens when you want to visit one friend in the morning and the other in the afternoon. One doesn’t have to have anything to do with the other, and you don’t have to be thinking of one when you are with the other.