(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Martha Grimes, poet and English professor, was sitting in Bethesda, Maryland, poring over a book on British pub names, when she was struck with a vision of her future: writing mysteries set in and around British pubs. Loving both British mysteries and England itself, she saw the pub as the symbolic heart of British daily life and as the natural gathering place for the closed society so necessary to the classic detective story. On her frequent trips to England, she studied small villages and their pubs, absorbing the atmosphere and observing the people.

With the pubs go the eccentric characters of the English mystery tradition. At the start, Grimes had intended Melrose Plant to be the central figure in her series. Eccentric in having dispensed with his claims to nobility, he would be surrounded by other humorous characters, noteworthy for some quirk, talent, or obsession. His Aunt Agatha, for example, one of the most unswervingly obnoxious women in a mystery series, will never forgive her nephew for thwarting her pretensions to titled eminence. His butler Ruthven is as self-possessed as Jeeves and as accomplished in domestic feats as Bunter. In the village of Long Piddleton, Dick Scroggs is the inventive proprietor of the Jack and Hammer, where Marshall Trueblood, antiques dealer and flashy dresser, usually shares the drink of the day with the lovely, well-bred Vivian Rivington, or perhaps with the old char, Mrs. Withersby.

At some undetermined point, the character of Detective Superintendent Richard Jury was developed, and he was a different sort of detective from Plant. Jury became increasingly important, until each man had his own role. This development was something Grimes had to defend to her publisher, who finally agreed to the notion of a shared working relationship, a cooperative, fifty-fifty arrangement. Grimes argued that her books simply could not succeed if either man’s role were diminished. When Jury is in London, another set of eccentrics comes on the scene. At Jury’s flat, he is sandwiched between the headstrong Carole-Anne on the second floor and the fearful Mrs. Wassermann in the basement, both of whom long to see him married. On the job, Jury is complemented by his sidekick, the eternally sniffling Wiggins, his voluble and luxury-loving boss Racer, the winsome Fiona Clingmore, and the mischievous feline Cyril. However much Racer tries to make Jury’s life miserable, it is clear that he is mere bluster. Like the milieu of the pub in Long Pidd (as Long Piddleton is known), the scene at the Yard is a comic one.

As important as the collection of engaging characters is the world created for them, and this world Grimes suggests with a wide range of British idioms, clear and concrete descriptions of interior as well as exterior settings (details of furniture, dress, dinnerware, the quality of daylight), and delicately rendered nuances of feeling in conversation. Music, too, underlines the shifting moods as the atmosphere alternates from light to dark. Yet as carefully observed and accurate as these details are, their cumulative effect is not what might be expected. The details are selected precisely for their power to convey the romantic illusion of the classic British mystery.

In 1983, Grimes wrote about the willing suspension of disbelief so enjoyed by the loyal readers of this sort of mystery. So keen was she on researching Scotland Yard that she even read several official reports of the commissioner to the queen, attempted unsuccessfully to interview former convicts, and, if one is to take her in earnest, visited the plate-glass and steel edifice on Victoria Street in the company of a man who claimed that he was being poisoned. Regardless of the absolute veracity of the account of that visit, Grimes herself was under no delusion about her purpose:Although I wanted to know the red-tape details, I didn’t want to use them. My sort of mystery is far more an exercise in deduction and an occasion to give free play to a dozen or so cranky types than it is a “true” account of how Scotland Yard operates.

The reader does not really want to know, Grimes concluded, about the level of police corruption in London or that the Yard is not really called in on complicated cases out in the provinces—“not even in the case of the Yorkshire Ripper.” The reader wants the conventions that are the stuff of his dreams.

With the research accomplished, the next logical step is usually the plotting. However, Grimes typically would not know who the murderer was before Jury did. She could not outline the story in advance, she said. She did not even have a central murder in mind when she began writing. This unconscious method of composition is quite consistent with the expressionist style she chose and with her assertion that this kind of mystery was the stuff of dreams. While Grimes’s conscious mind would be occupied selecting the details of atmosphere appropriate to the unthinkable deed, her unconscious would devise the motive and the means for a death—shockingly out of place, yet consistent with the mood.

Perhaps Grimes’s greatest strength, given the doubling of detectives, the pairing of metropolis and village, and the two levels of story development, conscious and unconscious, is the montage effect she manipulates so dexterously. She brings her poetic talents to bear, accenting imagery, and she has a delicious sense of humor that she uses to relieve her more somber passages. This rapid alternation of mood, character, setting, and action is admirably suited to the two most important requirements of the detective plot, forward movement and diversion. Montage serves as camouflage.

The Five Bells and Bladebone

The Five Bells and Bladebone (1987) is a particularly good example of this doubling, of contrasting moods, and of alternating perspectives. Its plot involves the classic problem of identity. The pub for which this book is named is located in London’s East End, the Limehouse district. It is a place with a murderous reputation, which the story’s opening sentences feelingly invoke:What else could you think of but getting your...

(The entire section is 2521 words.)