Ms. Grimes, in the parlor, with a pen

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Whodunit?

It's the basic question at the heart of every mystery. But for bestselling author Martha Grimes, it's the least interesting part of writing - or reading - a book.

"I don't think people read mysteries to pit their wit against the writer's," says the author of 19 mysteries, 16 starring Scotland Yard Inspector Richard Jury. "I think the appeal of mysteries - given that our lives are so uncertain - is that you know there will be an answer in the end. It's nice to read something so unlike what life is."

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For Ms. Grimes, it all starts with the crime scene, much as it does for her chief inspector.

"I begin with a dead body," says Grimes, somewhat gruesomely. "I have no idea who the person is. I don't know who's been murdered, why, or who the murderer is."

That all comes out in the writing - although Grimes doesn't always solve the crime as quickly as she'd like. Once, she made it almost to the end of the novel before discovering who the killer was - a sensation many of her readers can relate to, but which induces a bit of head-scratching. After all, if the writer doesn't know who did it, then who does?

Nor does the tall, patrician-looking author go in for outlines or meticulous plotting. In her second Jury mystery (all of which are named after English pubs), "The Anodyne Necklace," she got stuck halfway through, and tried writing a detailed outline to work through the hurdle.

"I got stuck at exactly the same point in the outline," she says, confirming her belief that plot grows out of the other aspects of a book - setting, dialogue, and character.

It's the roster of English eccentrics who populate Grimes's pubs that drive the novels - and their sales. In her newest book, "The Lamorna Wink" (Viking), sidekick Melrose Plant takes over the role of main sleuth (although Jury puts in an appearance to help solve the crime). This gave her an opportunity to explore one of the series's great mysteries: why the wealthy and aristocratic Plant gave up his titles. "I just found it out myself fairly recently," says Grimes, who often talks of her work as though she's discovering the answers along with readers.

The role reversal also marks a return to Grimes's original plan - which was to have Plant be her main character. Little but his intelligence has survived the first draft. "He was going to be extremely obnoxious ... a terrible snob, with one saving grace. That was going to be that he had the wit of an Oscar Wilde," laughs Grimes. "I thought this was a great idea until I realized, 'Martha, you don't have the wit of an Oscar Wilde.' "

Both Plant and Jury sprang full-grown from Grimes's pen, without donning, "except unconsciously," traits of people she's known. In fact, only one of her books is based on real life: "Hotel Paradise," which Grimes describes as "absolutely autobiographical." Like Emma Graham, the lonely teenage hero, Grimes grew up in an aging resort hotel run by her mother in Maryland.

Teenagers (as well as the elderly) feature strongly in many of Grimes's works, including her two newest, "The Lamorna Wink" and "Biting the Moon" (Henry Holt). The latter, starring two American girls, is the beginning of a series dealing with animal abuse. Grimes, a longtime vegetarian, donated a hefty portion of the book's royalties to various animal-rights groups.

While she says she has no plans to abandon Jury for the younger sleuths in "Biting the Moon," she'd like to do a crossover at some point. Her coming pair of novellas, "Two Trains Departing," departs entirely from the mystery genre.

Grimes's youngest and oldest characters (such as elegant and indomitable Lady Cray from "The Old Contemptibles") are among the books' most likable and innately moral characters.

"I imagine these children as not what I was, but what I wish I was," says Grimes, who has one son. Most of the teenagers in her novels are on their own - whether they've been abandoned or lost their parents. "I keep rewriting my childhood again and again."

Grimes, who peppers her Jury novels with references to Edgar Allen Poe, Virgil, and Robert Frost, discovered her talent for mystery writing through poetry, after publishing "Send Bygraves," a mystery in verse.

Grimes cites as influences Jane Austen and Joyce Porter - whose Dover, a slovenly, greedy bully of an inspector, is the antithesis of Jury. "Without question, the funniest mysteries ever written," she notes.

While she admires writers such as P.D. James, Andrew Vachss, and James Lee Burke, Grimes says she doesn't read much of the genre anymore. "Too many mysteries read like scripts - all dialogue and some action [and] not much in the way of character."

She once created a character who had to chain herself to a desk to write, but Grimes even writes on crowded airplanes. She composes her stories in longhand - reportedly with fountain pens and a dozen colors of ink.

Her next Jury mystery will be set in London and "have a lot to do with World War II" - giving her an opportunity to delve into Jury's childhood and the death of his mother during the blitz.

Unlike Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Grimes shows no sign of tiring of her creation. And given the number of pubs populating the British Isles, she's not likely to run out of titles anytime soon.

*Yvonne Zipp is on the Monitor staff.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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