Pour two shots at a Fells Point pub and stir in three murders: Call it a Martha Grimes mystery

A PLOT WITH A TWIST, PLEASE

August 01, 1993|By Tim Warren

On an unmercifully hot day in Baltimore, with the temperature well into the 90s, the air conditioner was going full blast in the Horse You Came In On. There were a few customers in this funky Fells Point pub, chatting with one another or drawing on a beer in an attempt to beat the heat. And then Martha Grimes, the woman who soon will put Baltimore on the best-seller list, poked her head inside.

She closed the door and, after absorbing the marked difference in temperature, looked around. Her eyes searched the walls and then the back of the bar, and she wore a quizzical expression. Pointing to the skylight and the hanging plants in the rear of the bar, Ms. Grimes asked after a moment, "This place has changed some since I last came here, hasn't it?"

That time was in the late 1980s, when Ms. Grimes was teaching mystery-writing in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University when she wasn't turning out best-selling mysteries. But now it was mid-1993, and she had come from her Capitol Hill home for a return visit to the place that became the title of her 12th and latest mystery, starring once again the suave Scotland Yard detective Richard Jury and his aristocratic sidekick, Melrose Plant.

Howard Gerber, a Baltimore attorney and owner of the Horse You Came In On, greeted her warmly. The two had never met, and now he affirmed that the pub indeed had changed since her last visit. "The back part used to be a courtyard, but we closed it off because some neighbors complained about the noise," he told Ms. Grimes, who nodded as she took in the new features.

She showed him the English edition of "The Horse You Came In On," as well as the dust jacket of the American edition, published last month by Alfred A. Knopf with a considerable first printing of 100,000. "This is great, simply great," Mr. Gerber said enthusiastically. "The name of this place on the cover of all these books." His smile could have lighted up the back room.

He told her the story behind the pub's name.

"When my partner and I opened this place in 1972, we wanted to give this an English-pub feel," he related. "We got a list of hundreds of names of English pubs, and somehow this name always suggested itself."

"Is that right?" Ms. Grimes answered, and she was clearly amused by the irony. For Martha Grimes has written 11 Richard Jury mysteries with the names of English pubs providing the titles. And when she did, indeed, literarily leave the British shores to base a mystery in America, the drinking establishment featured in the title turned out to have the name of -- what else? -- an English pub.

Still, "The Horse You Came In On" is Jury and Plant's first foray to this continent, and in it Baltimore is front and center. As Jury and Plant try to solve three murders, Ms. Grimes leads readers on a wry and decidedly unorthodox tour of Charm City, working into the plot Baltimore's homeless, a reputed newly discovered Edgar Allan Poe manuscript (found in a trunk in a Fells Point antiques shop, no less) and even the city's attempt to secure a National Football League franchise.

Except for the last several Anne Tyler novels, Baltimore has not received this extensive an examination by a major fiction-writer in some time.

"There is a lot of interest in this book -- an awful lot," says Paige Rose, co-owner of the Mystery Loves Company book store on Fleet Street in Fells Point.

There are superb local descriptions throughout "The Horse You Came In On," as in this passage:

Despite the obvious quaintness in danger of sliding into chic, Fells Point was a genuine period piece. Left to itself for over two hundred years, it was evidently becoming trendy, but it still kept the appearance of its eighteenth-century origins. It had about it a pleasant sort of scruffiness that the galleries and shops hadn't managed to glamorize or suppress. Now row houses faced narrow strips of sidewalk on narrow streets. Slate roofs crowned them and sally ports divided them, walkways with painted iron gates that Melrose assumed had once been used for the passage of livestock.

The Horse You Came In On, Ms. Grimes wrote, "was a low-key, no-frills little pub, narrow, with a bar along the left wall and tables and chairs along the right." Nothing extraordinary about the place, really, except for its great name -- and a great name of a pub is all that Martha Grimes needs to start writing a novel.

For she doesn't work out a plot line first, and hasn't since she first began writing mysteries in the late 1970s while teaching English at Montgomery College in Takoma Park. All her mysteries proceed from the selection of a peculiarly named pub that becomes the title: the Man With a Load of Mischief, I Am the Only Running Footman, the Old Contemptibles. It's whimsy, it's serendipity and it's made Martha Grimes one of the top mystery writers in this country.

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