Sunday, June 22, 2014

Martha Grimes: Every Book the Last Book

The Writer's Life

Since 1981, fans of the Richard Jury mysteries have come to expect eccentric characters, peculiar murders and a smart, cultured, analytical detective who searches for killers from a cast of disparate suspects. One of the more consistent hallmarks of a Richard Jury novel are the titles derived from clever names of actual pubs and bars, like The Old Fox Deceiv'd and The StargazeyMartha Grimes has largely set the atmospheric series in London and quaint, small-town villages in the English countryside, but a few titles are also set in America--The Horse You Came in On in Baltimore, Md., and Rainbow's End in Santa Fe, N.Mex. Her new Jury novel, Vertigo 42 (see review below), is set in London and environs.
Grimes is a writer of authority and great wit. She continues to reinvent and put refreshing new spins on the traditional mystery form. She has also penned several other books, not all of them mysteries. Her novels Foul Matter and The Way of All Fish offer funny, suspenseful send-ups of the publishing industry.
You are a U.S. born-and-bred writer, yet most of the Jury novels are set in Britain. What is your connection to England?
None, other than I've always liked it.
Do you often travel to England and the British countryside for research?
Not as often as I used to. Perhaps every couple of years now.
You've written 23 books in the Jury series. How and why do you stay engaged in this series and keep it fresh?
Because I like the characters, not simply Richard Jury and Melrose Plant, but all of the characters, including the ones readers appear to hate.
How was Richard Jury's character originally created?
As with all of my characters, Richard Jury simply popped into my mind. So did Melrose Plant. So did all of the others. There's no backstory; there's no searching for names; there's nothing prior. All I knew about the main character was that I wanted a Scotland Yard detective.
Do you have favorite characters from the Jury series? If so, who are they and why do they appeal to you?
Carole-anne Palutski (Jury's neighbor) is one because she's always intruding. She has no respect for Jury's personal "space." This amuses me. I'm especially fond of the kids and the animals. I always enjoy writing scenes with them in it. Mungo (the dog) was a total relief from boredom.
I also really like Harry Johnson because he's more clever, most of the time, than Richard Jury. Jury needs a nemesis.
The names of pubs and bars play a significant role in each Jury novel. Was this a conscious choice from the inception of the series?
Yes. I couldn't imagine better titles.
The name and atmosphere of the champagne bar, Vertigo 42, is a departure from your usual small-time pubs. Why did you make this choice?
Because of the name. How could one resist it?
How did the story of Vertigo 42 germinate?
Stories don't really "germinate" for me. I start writing and keep writing and the story goes on. Vertigo 42 started because, as I said, I was fascinated by the name. That's the way a lot of the books in the series started: because of the name.
Do you carefully plot out your novels in advance of writing them?
I never plot them out. I tried once and couldn't do it. The reason for this is (1) I can't write unless characters are moving and talking in some setting that I can see and hear, and (2) plots bore me. There is a famous writer/editor, whose name escapes me, who was approached by a student who asked him to look at a plot she'd formed for a novel. He said, "There is no plot." I loved that. A plot cannot be foretold separately from the whole story.
You studied at the University of Iowa writing program and concentrated on poetry. How and why did your writing career veer toward mystery novels?
My poetry was complicated by elements of mystery--dark houses, fleeing children, bodies, blood. The book of poetry I published is a British mystery in poetry form, or a satirical treatment of one.
Your memoir, Double, Double--co-written with your son, Ken--deals with your shared struggles with alcoholism. Would fans of the Richard Jury mysteries want to read this book?
I don't know if they'd want to read it because they like Jury. But everyone knows someone who's been touched by alcoholism, so perhaps that would be a reason to read it.
Is there a difference between writing a novel "under the influence" versus being sober?
Yes, "under the influence" is more fun. However, "under the influence" suggests some sort of drunken stupor. I never actually drank when I wrote, but that had to do with my writing schedule more than my being a good little writer. Insofar as the books are concerned, I doubt anyone could tell where the line was drawn.
If readers have not yet experienced a Richard Jury novel (pity the fool!), should they start with the first book (The Man with a Load of Mischief) or can they jump into the series midstream?
There's no need to start at the beginning. I'd suggest The Anodyne because it introduces the Cripps family and features Emily Louise Perk, who serves as a perfect example of Jury's and Melrose Plant's interactions with children. But one could start anywhere in the series, I think.
Do you have a favorite Richard Jury novel?
The Old Wine Shades because it's intelligent. I enjoyed writing about quantum mechanics and, also, it introduces both Harry Johnson and the dog Mungo. How could I ask for more?
You've been writing and publishing books for decades. Does the process get easier or more difficult?
More difficult. Much, much more difficult.
You are an esteemed and lauded "mystery writer." Do you often have the urge to write fiction other than mysteries?
I've written nine novels that are not mysteries--two books in the Andi Oliver series certainly aren't mysteries! How do readers come by this naive idea that any book that contains a mysterious death or a disappearance or something else inexplicable is a "mystery"? If that were the case, even Henry James would be thought to have written several "mysteries." I'm getting tired of the assumption that any book I write must be a mystery.
Throughout the series, Richard Jury has been rather unlucky in love. Do you think he'll ever find a true, lasting soul mate?
I thought he had. But I was wrong. I think he will. I could be wrong again.
Do you foresee a conscious end or conclusion to the Jury series some day?
Robert Frost said, "Make every poem your last poem." Every Jury novel has a note of finality to it, although the only one readers ever paid attention to was the ending of The Blue Last. Every book is the last book, in a very real sense. I have no plans for closing down Richard Jury. But life does. --Kathleen Gerard

Note: This interview is a reprint and is being posted with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this Q&A on Shelf Awareness: Maximum Shelf (5/21/14), click HERE