News & Politics

At Home Abroad: The Mystery of Author Martha Grimes

The longtime Washingtonian on why she sets her famous mystery series in England.

Grimes’s fascination with Scotland Yard began with a chance encounter you only read about in books. Photograph by Michael Ventura.

Readers of Martha Grimes’s mystery series starring Inspector Richard Jury of Scotland Yard wouldn’t be blamed for thinking she’s British, instead of an American with deep ties to Maryland. Now in her early eighties, Grimes says her new Jury book, Vertigo 42, out this month, is “the hardest one I’ve ever written,” but she’s still experimenting. She recently spoke to us from her Bethesda home.

Vertigo 42 is unusual for you in that the mysterious death has already occurred at the start of the book.

The book is based on a suicide, and I wanted to make that character so interesting that her death could carry the book—but I couldn’t do it. I wound up with three murders instead.

Jury novels always seem to be named for English pubs—this one is a Champagne bar. How did the tradition come about?

I’m enamored of names and all they stand for—and conceal. My favorite is The Old Silent, the first chapter of which takes place in complete silence. I always have the name before I write. You have to start with something concrete—a touchstone, if you will. I’m a very slow writer, so having that keeps me moving.

That explains the pub names. But why England?

I went to England because of a man. That relationship didn’t work out, but the one with England did. I go over once or twice a year, first to pick a pub, then to get its environs right.

Last week, I was going over some old notebooks and found a story about the time I got to go inside Scotland Yard. I was in London, and a man came up to me on the street and asked where it was. He said, “I’ve got to get there because I’m being poisoned!” I was so intrigued by his story—he said his relatives were slowly poisoning him to gain control of his antiques business—that I thought nothing of following him to his car and driving up to New Scotland Yard so he could entertain a constable with his tale of woe.

Last year, you published a joint memoir with your son called Double Double, about both of your battles with alcoholism. Is there any irony that people associate you with pubs?

I was what’s called a “maintenance drinker,” who never gives the appearance of being drunk. Even my psychiatrist didn’t believe me when I said I was an alcoholic. But I gradually realized something was in control of me, and I couldn’t have that. I couldn’t stop by myself, so I went to a clinic. Allowing my characters to indulge in cocktails, wine, or sherry is purely vicarious enjoyment on my part.

This article appears in the June 2014 issue of Washingtonian.