New York Times
August 20 2003


WASHINGTON – “I was fired from Knopf!” said the mystery writer Martha Grimes. “Sonny didn’t want the next Jury book,” she said, speaking of Sonny Mehta, editor in chief of Alfred A. Knopf, and Ms. Grimes’s 18-book series about an urbane British detective, Richard Jury, all named after English pubs, like “The Blue Last” and “The Grave Maurice.”

Nearly 10 years later, Ms. Grimes speaks as if the hurt lingers. Knopf dropped her, she said, probably because at that time she wasn’t earning back her advances.

Never mind. Now Ms. Grimes, 72, whose Jury novels are regularly best sellers, is having her revenge. She has written “Foul Matter,” just out from Viking, a sendup of the publishing industry, with characters, her publicist says coyly, who may bear a resemblance to real people. There is plenty of inside information about publishing, but it is also a comic adventure full of quirky characters and plot twists.

“The woman is brutal,” said Andrew Vachss, the mystery novelist, who is an old friend of Ms. Grimes. “This book is all-out war.”

“Foul Matter” – it’s the term for an unedited manuscript – is to publishing what Elmore Leonard’s “Get Shorty” was to movies, a dissection of greed, hypocrisy and ambition. Publishers have been taken over by German conglomerates like Blundenraven and the real-life Bertelsmann. Companies have names like Queeg & Hyde, Grundge and Dreck Inc. An editor called Bill Mnemic regularly steals other houses’ authors.

In the book a diabolical best-selling mystery writer names Paul Giverney agrees to jump ship at his old publisher and sign up with Mackenzie-Haack, but only if it gets rid of another, more literary author, Ned Isaly, who makes less money than Giverney

Giverney’s motive is to prove that the business is so corrupt that publishers will go to any length to make money. But Isaly’s contract is unbreakable, so the firm’s head, Bobby Mackenzie, orders an editor, Clive Esterhaus, to have him killed. A Mackenzie author and Mafia informer in witness protection finds two hit men to do the job. The problem is that they insist on reading Isaly’s work before killing him, and they turn out to be amateur literary critics.

Ms. Grimes is cagey about who the book’s real-life antecedents are. Is Bobby Mackenzie supposed to be Sonny Mehta? Mackenzie is brilliant and canny, words applied to Mr. Mehta, who took over Knopf in 1987. Like Mr. Mehta, Mackenzie keeps a bottle of spirits in his desk, and he has added commercial authors to a previously rarefied list. Of course, this is a spoof, and any resemblance stops there.

“A couple of people have mentioned Sonny as a model,” Ms. Grimes said. But she added, “I do consider Sonny to be some kind of publishing genius.”

“I really admire him,” she continued. She is hardly suggesting that Mr. Mehta would take out a contract on one of his own authors, she said.

“There’s only one element of Sonny in Bobby Mackenzie,” she said. “Sonny has a lot of power. It isn’t inconceivable that he would demonstrate power for its own sake.”

Paul Bogaards, the director of public relations at Knopf, said that Ms. Grimes and Mr. Mehta “had an amicable parting.” He said that Mr. Mehta had not read the book.

Ms. Grimes says parts of her are in all the authors she portrays in the book: the best-selling Giverney, the purist Isaly, the unpretentious mystery writer Jamie. Clive, who in the end does the right thing, “is an amalgam of a number of people.”

But what about Mortimer Durban, Giverney’s agent, who is ruining publishing by getting huge advances for authors that they can’t earn back? The name seems like a combination of two well-known real-life figures, Mort Janklow and Amanda Urban. “I wasn’t even thinking of it,” she said.

“Foul Matter” is one of several recent novels depicting publishing in a bad light. In “The Last Days of Publishing” (University of Massachusetts Press) by Tom Englehardt, a Pantheon editor resigned in protest when his boss, Andre Schiffrin, was forced out by S. I. Newhouse. As in “Foul Matter,” publishing has been taken over by German conglomerates. Now the editor has to report to his ex-wife and a slimy former hippie.

German conglomerates have also taken over in “The Storyteller” (Doubleday) by Arthur Reid, a pseudonym for Howard Kaminsky, a longtime publishing executive, and his wife, Susan, a former editor at Dutton. Here the subject is plagiarism. An author who can’t get published obtains a cache of manuscripts that he publishes under his own name. They become best sellers.

But why would Ms. Grimes, who admits to an annual income of over a million dollars from publishing, have a grudge against the industry? Well, success has not come easily.

In her autobiographical books, “Hotel Paradise” and “Cold Flat Junction,” she describes growing up a smart, neglected child whose mother was part owner of a resort hotel in western Maryland. Ms. Grimes’s father, a city attorney in Pittsburgh, died when she was 6.

She graduated from the University of Maryland and did postgraduate work at the University of Iowa. She wanted to be a poet and studied alongside Donald Justice and Philip Levine.

Ms. Grimes married Edwin Van Holland and had a son, Kent, who today is her publicist. The couple divorced.

For 15 years, while bringing up Kent in Maryland, she taught English at Montgomery College, a community college, at its Takoma Park campus, “an awful job,” she said, and tried to write. In her late 40’s, she began sending out “The Man With a Load of Mischief,” about Richard Jury. A dozen houses rejected it before Little, Brown published it in 1981.

Readers became passionately attached to Jury; his aristocratic assistant, Melrose Plant; and Plant’s obnoxious aunt, Agatha. In 1992, when Ms. Grimes published her first novel out of the Jury series, “The End of the Pier,” her fans and editors objected. She got hate mail, she said. Her editors call the non-Jury books, which have not been best sellers, “these other books,” Ms. Grimes said. “If I hear that expression again, I’m quitting.”

Today, Ms. Grimes lives in Washington and near Santa Fe. Tall and elegant, she has never remarried. “Someone had to thrill me enough,” she said with a laugh.

“I have a reputation for being difficult,” Ms. Grimes said. But that is because she refuses suggestions from editors without questioning them, she said. “I just squawk and complain.”

Ms. Grimes has a generally dim view of the business. Her 1993 Jury mystery, “The Horse You Came In On” (Knopf), was reported to stem from a grievance she had against another mystery writer, Elizabeth George, also an American who sets books in England. Ms. Grimes said she thought Ms. George was stealing her ideas. Ms. George’s agent called Ms. Grimes’s accusations “baseless, preposterous and undignified.”

Recently, Ms. Grimes said, “The book has no relationship to Elizabeth George.”

Among Ms. Grimes’s gripes are the big advances paid to some writers. “It’s decadent,” she said. “Most authors can’t possibly earn them out.”

She says this even though she receives advances of about $1 million for every three Richard Jury books. “I’m getting a lot – too much,” she said.

In 1989 her agent sold “Send Bygraves,” a book of mystery poems, for a quarter million dollars, “an exorbitant sum,” Ms. Grimes said. “Crazy! You’re not going to earn it back.”

“I think agents do this to show their own power,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons I hate agents.”

But wait, there’s a mystery here. She’s a best-selling author. Why bite the hand that feeds her?

“My motive in writing this book was not to attack publishing,” Ms. Grimes said. “There were no characters in this book I actually disliked. I liked all of them.”

“Foul Matter” could be about Ford, or any kind of business,” she said.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company