Northwest Passages, March 12, 2008

Current Correspondent

Fortunately for her readers, Martha Grimes has a hard time letting go. “Everything seems to turn into a series with me even when I don’t mean it to,” said Grimes, a Capitol Hill resident who is best known for the 22 mystery novels she has written about Richard Jury, a Scotland Yard detective. Although she intended for her Jury stories to become a series, she didn’t expect it of her eight other books.

“I enjoy these characters a lot,” Grimes said after a talk at Olsson’s Books & Records in Dupont Circle late last month. “I really like thinking about them, watching them, seeing what they’re going to do. I write about these people, and I get really connected to them and I just cannot let them go.”

One of her favorites among the newer protagonists is Andi Oliver, a young woman battling amnesia and animal cruelty. She first appeared in 1999 in Grimes’ “Biting the Moon” to take on dog fighting, hunting and wild-animal profiteers. At Olsson’s, the tall, slender 76-year-old author spoke about Oliver’s return in “Dakota,” published last month. This time, Oliver tackles pig farming in North Dakota.

Although Grimes is sending a message through her character, she doesn’t consider herself an animal-rights activist. “I’m not,” she said. “I’m not really active doing anything except writing. You can call me an animalist if you want.”

Grimes has always had a soft spot for animals, but it intensified about 35 years ago, after she watched “The Guns of Autumn,” a documentary about hunting. “I was so appalled watching the things some of these hunters did. I mean, you know, standing over a deer with a handgun pointed at the deer’s head — things like that. I stopped eating meat immediately.”

Grimes found the research for “Dakota” difficult to take. But she is passionate about the subject and wanted to share it with readers. “I feel that fiction will get to more people than nonfiction,” she said, citing Gail Eisnitz’s “Slaughterhouse” as an example. “When you have a book called ‘Slaughterhouse’ sitting on a table, how many people are going to buy it? How many people are going to read it?”

Most people don’t want to see what is going on at animal factories, she said, “but if you don’t see it, you don’t know what’s going on. I know there is this perception, this feeling, that if you know something like this is going on, then you have to do something about it. No, you do not. You don’t have to do something about it. But the fact that so many people think you have to do something about it keeps them from wanting to know anything about it. At least if you know, then you can do something about it.” In addition to writing about the topic, Grimes is donating 50 percent of the profits from “Dakota” to Last Chance for Animals and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, an organization she has supported for years. She was accompanied at Olsson’s by Dr. Neal Barnard, founder and president of the committee, which promotes vegetarian and vegan diets in addition to alternatives to using animals in medical education and research.

Grimes, who was born in Pittsburgh and grew up in Maryland, graduated from the University of Maryland but found her writing footing in graduate school at the University of Iowa. (She ultimately received her master’s from Maryland, though.) “I got into the poetry workshop not because I was a poet but because my boyfriend was in the poetry workshop. I’d never written a line of poetry.”

She stuck with the genre until she switched to fiction at about age 40. The decision came as “a direct result of a poem I had written called ‘Waiting for the Hit Man.’ I finished writing the poem and I thought, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute. Maybe I should be writing fiction because all my poetry … it was sort of dramatic.’” She decided on British mysteries — “because I like to read

British mysteries” — and published her first, “The Man With a Load of Mischief,” in 1981, after reading about an English pub with the same name.

Grimes has published at least one book a year for the past 25 years. She writes every day, and her books typically take one year from conception to publication. It’s the conception that often takes Grimes by surprise. “It doesn’t really begin with an idea as such; it just begins with a shot of something, a scene,” she said. “I don’t know the plot. I don’t know why someone killed Whozywhatsit. I just discover it in the course of writing.”

But it’s always clear when it’s done. In fact, “there were one or two occasions when I knew what I wanted the last line to be, and I wrote the book so that that would be the last line. That sounds a little artificial, which I guess it is, but there are things that grab a hold of me that I really love and I just want them to be in it.” Grimes is currently working on her next Jury book, and she plans to bring Andi Oliver back soon, although she isn’t sure what animal- rights topic the character will tackle next.