True Grimes

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Novelist Martha Grimes would admit she hasn’t totally fallen in love with her new home of Sarasota yet. Blame it on leakage problems at her condo, the fact that she lost her cat during her last stay here-or even the dearth of quaintly named pubs, such as the ones she favors in her best-selling series […]


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Novelist Martha Grimes would admit she hasn’t totally fallen in love with her new home of Sarasota yet. Blame it on leakage problems at her condo, the fact that she lost her cat during her last stay here-or even the dearth of quaintly named pubs, such as the ones she favors in her best-selling series of Inspector Richard Jury mysteries.

On the other hand, Grimes says, "Sarasota is really beautiful. I first came here because I saw a picture of a house here I loved. The only thing about it was that there were no palm trees, and I love palm trees. The agent said, ‘You could always have some palm trees put in,’ but I thought, ‘I’m in Florida and I have to bring in palm trees’"?

While she may still be getting used to part-time life here (she also has homes in Santa Fe and the Washington, D.C. area), Grimes has certainly settled into the routine of producing popular and critically acclaimed books. It’s a pattern that began more than 20 years ago with the publication of The Man with a Load of Mischief, the book that introduced the attractive but unlucky-in-love Inspector Jury of Scotland Yard, his aristocratic partner in solving crimes, Melrose Plant, and a host of other now familiar characters who live in London and the small village of Long Piddleton, where the pub The Jack and Hammer is their gathering place. Each of the successive Jury books has borne for the title the name of a pub; and no matter how odd they may be (The Old Contemptibles, The Five Bells & Bladebone, for example) they’re all authentic, discovered by Grimes on her many trips to England for research.

Grimes herself is American, born in Pittsburgh in 1931 and reared spending every summer at her mother’s hotel in western Maryland. Memories of those days surface in yet another series of books she’s written, beginning with The End of the Pier in 1992. The heroine here is feisty 12-year-old Emma Graham, and the reader definitely feels that Emma bears a strong resemblance to the young Grimes herself.

How does a woman now in her 70s manage to evoke the emotions and thoughts of a child so well? "I don’t really know the answer to that," Grimes says, "except to say that somehow or other I’m still back there. You know, in every one of the Jury books there’s always a kid, and readers have often commented that they’re particularly well drawn. I would imagine those kids in the Jury books, like Emma, are all me. For me the easiest characters to write in the Jury books are children. I particularly love writing scenes between children and Jury, or children and Melrose Plant. They’re so different. I remember in The Anodyne Necklace, I have Jury telling this totally fictional account of his childhood friend Jimmy PealeCHECKSP to a young girl, and she’s totally mesmerized. Later Melrose starts telling her a long story and her only response is to stare at him and ask, ‘Is Jimmy Peale in this story?’"

Although the books featuring Emma may not sell quite as well as the Jury books, which have a loyal and perpetually hungry audience, Grimes says she loves to write them. Actually, she loves to write, period. After years of struggling to get published while teaching at a community college (a job she loathed), it’s still fulfilling to have the opportunity to create her fictional worlds.

"It’s so much a part of my life I honestly can’t imagine not doing it," says Grimes. "I do write every day, for three or four hours, and I think that’s the reason I turn out my books with such regularity. I do a lot of writing in coffee shops; I find that atmosphere very conducive to writing. I always start out in longhand and then transfer the copy to the computer. I tend to have problems with computers, so if I didn’t have the original in longhand I’d be in real trouble.

"When I finish one book I start another, with really no break in between. Actually, I do take time off when I go to England, but even over there I manage to write. No matter where I go, I always plan to use it in a Jury book. So it then becomes an income tax write-off," she laughs. "I get criticized sometimes for taking these side trips in the books, but I would like to point out that these occasional trips are related to the story itself. I think reviewers sometimes don’t actually read the books, or else they decide what they think of them ahead of time."

As you can tell from that comment, Grimes can sometimes be acerbic-never more so than when writing the much talked-about Foul Matter, a send-up of the publishing industry whose characters frequently resemble real people (it came out in 2003). Grimes wrote Foul Matter (it’s the term for an unedited manuscript) over a period of years, but its genesis lies in her "firing" from Alfred A. Knopf, her former publisher, a decade ago. (She is now published by Viking.) "I loved writing that one," she says with relish.

Grimes is also somewhat embittered that she no longer has a British publisher for her Jury books.

"My British publisher would always ask for certain changes in my books, and I’ve willingly made them," she says. "But when it got to The Blue Last, for some reason they wanted all of these substantive changes at the last minute, and I refused to do it. So they dropped me. The reason given to me was that the British take very seriously World War II [which is referred to in flashbacks in the book]. As if Americans don’t? I still don’t have a British publisher. I don’t find it heartbreaking, but I do find it maddening. You want to take a glove and slap it across their faces."

But no publishing setbacks have ever deterred Grimes from writing her books her way. And that way is definitely not to begin with the plot already carefully worked out to the last detail.

"I’m writing my next Jury book now. I’m 17 to 18 chapters into it, and I simply have no idea of how I’m going to work out the situation," she says calmly. "I just have to tell myself, ‘You’ve done it before with all these other books, and you can do it with this one.’ I guess in some way I become the reader, who can’t imagine how it’s going to work itself out. I got stuck once in a book and decided to write an outline to help. Well, I got stuck in the very same place in the outline.

"My books are driven by character and setting, not plot. I think it was the New York Times mystery reviewer who said about my last book, Winds of Change, that it had a ‘diffuse plot.’ What she meant, of course, was that there were loose ends. I wish I could sit down with her and say, "OK, give me a loose end.’ I guess I would say, although not with all the confidence of a Raymond Chandler [who faced some criticism when one murder in his famous The Big Sleep went unsolved], ‘So what?’ You read Chandler for the language and for the style."

Besides her admiration for Chandler, by the way, Grimes has good things to say about other favorite writers. "In the past, Jane Austen, whom you can read over and over again. And Dennis Lehane. His last book [Shutter Island] was absolutely incredible. I wish I’d written it. I read Robert Wilson’s A Small Death in Lisbon recently and just loved it. His book The Blind Man of Seville ought to be the template for all mysteries. That’s a book in my genre that’s character driven while at the same time having a wonderful plot. And I always look forward to Anita Brookner’s books. I’m always reading, fiction for the most part."

Grimes, who was married once and divorced, has a grown-up son, Kent, who acts as her publicist. She also has a changing lineup of cats and a passionate interest in animal rights.

"Twenty years ago or more there was a book that was made into a documentary called Guns of August, about hunting," she recalls. "I was so shocked when I saw it that I immediately became a vegetarian. I started a novel about the hunting issue, but I never finished it." Grimes did, however, write a book called Biting the Moon, a work of fiction centered on two young girls who get involved in rescuing trapped or mistreated animals.

She also enjoys movies, and is disappointed that so far plans to produce a television version of the Jury-Plant novels have not come to fruition. "A script was written once, and then there was change at the top of the A&E network," she sighs. "It could have been wonderful, because I had cast and script approval."

Grimes’ choice for the darkly romantic Jury? "Clive Owen, because he’s just too cool for words. Or perhaps Colin Firth." For Melrose? Two Hughs are high on her list: Grant and Laurie (the latter currently starring in the TV show House).

Coming up next for Grimes fans: the latest in the Emma Graham series, Belle Ruin (which may include some Florida scenes), due in August; a follow-up to Biting the Moon (sometime in 2007); and the as yet-untitled latest Jury mystery (coming in September 2006). There’s no letup in sight. After all, the hardest part of writing a book, says the prolific but technophobic Grimes, is "numbering the pages."

A (MYSTERY) WRITERS’ COLONY

Martha Grimes is one of the latest mystery writers to discover Sarasota, but she’s hardly the first. Here are a few others who’ve found Southwest Florida’s sunshine-and occasional darker side-to be congenial to writing whodunits and thrillers.

Stuart Kaminsky fled the snows of Chicago for the warmth of Sarasota more than a decade ago and has since continued to add to his writing resume. A past president of the Mystery Writers of America who’s been nominated for six Edgar Allan Poe Awards, Kaminsky writes, not one, not two, but four popular series, including those featuring Toby Peters, Abe Lieberman, inspector Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov and Lew Fonesca, the latter set in Sarasota. His latest, a Lieberman novel titled The Last Dark Place and a Toby Peters entry titled Now You See It, came out in November.

Another example of a Sarasota author for whom one series isn’t enough. Peter King began his writing career late in life with the Gourmet Detective mysteries (sample titles: Spiced to Death, Death al Dente) and branched out in a series starring writer Jack London as the protagonist (the latest, the Golden Gate Murders).

Wayne Barcomb also started writing mysteries after pursuing another career, as a publishing executive. His first two titles are All Are Naked and Spin the Bottle; Sarasota is the backdrop for his latest, Blood Tide.

Leslie Glass. A part-time Sarasotan, Glass has been successful with her April Woo series set in New York and featuring an Asian-American female cop (Stealing Time, A Killing Gift). Her latest Woo, A Clean Kill, is due in June. She also published a non-Woo effort recently, a stocks-and-robbers tale called For Love and Money.

Perhaps the "king" of them all is Stephen King, a seasonal resident of Casey Key and the writer of such spine-tinglers as Carrie, The Shining, The Dead Zone, and many, many more. He’s most recently published Faithful, a book dealing with his beloved Boston Red Sox (co-written with friend Stewart O’Nan.

Evan Hunter is no longer a Sarasotan, but for years he lived on Lido Shores while penning his famous 87th Precinct novels (under the pseudonym Ed McBain) and later the Matthew Hope series, set in a town called Calusa that looks awfully familiar. Rumors persist he may move back here part-time.

Tim Dorsey, writer of the comic mysteries featuring serial killer Serge Storms (including Florida Roadkill, Stingray Shuffle and this month’s brand-new Torpedo Juice), isn’t technically a Sarasota resident, either (he lives in Tampa), but he visits town frequently, both in his books and in SARASOTA Magazine pages as a contributing writer.

Extending our reach down to Naples, Robin Cook (Coma, Terminal, Vector) is a longtime seasonal resident. And Janet Evanovich, of the Stephanie Plum series (One for the Money, Hot Six), is a Naples newcomer who’s added a new series to her portfolio with Metro Girl, starring heroine Alex Barnaby. There’s talk of a Plum movie being produced by Reese Witherspoon’s production company.

And, of course, the late John D. MacDonald, the granddaddy of them all, lived on Siesta Key in the ’50s, 60s and ’70s while creating the colorful Travis McGee series (The Deep Blue Good-by, The Dreadful Lemon Sky, The Green Ripper) along with Sarasota-set page turners like Condominium and A Flash of Green. He created the model that so many writers since have followed.