Martha Grimes's The Jerusalem Inn

What can be more delightful during the holiday season than relaxing with a good Yuletide mystery? The feast of Christmas has inspired some of the best mystery fiction: Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, Raymond Chandler’s Lady in the Lake, Ed McBain’s Sadie When She Died, Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Blue Carbuncle,” Sue Grafton’s E is for Evidence, Ngaio Marsh’s Tied up in Tinsel, Patricia Cornwell’s From Potter’s Field, Jane Langton’s The Shortest Day, Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, Ellery Queen’s The Egyptian Cross Mystery, and Mickey Spillane’s I, The Jury (click here for an extensive list of recommended novels and stories). In past years, I have discussed Anne Perry’s A Christmas Secret and Janet Evanovich’s Visions of Sugar Plums.

This December I have chosen a charmingly traditional English mystery, complete with country-house setting. Martha Grimes, bestselling author of the Christmas mystery novel, The Jerusalem Inn, has “written 30 novels and sold 5 million books worldwide,” notes Ellen Ryan. “But few Washingtonians recognize Martha Grimes. And that’s okay with her.” Like Elizabeth George, Grimes is an American who writes British mysteries. This “delightfully witty American academic,” observes Derrick Murdoch, “knows more about England, its literature and its pubs, and feels for it a more uncritical love, than most Britons.” Grimes delights in British settings and especially in English pubs and inns. The titles of her books often take their names from the pubs that are focal places in her stories.

The Jerusalem Inn is Grimes’s 5th Richard Jury mystery, and considered by many to be her finest novel. Five days before Christmas, Scotland Yard’s Jury meets a beautiful woman in a graveyard. Shortly afterwards, she is found poisoned to death. During this time, Jury’s friend and amateur detective, Melrose Plant, gathers with friends at a medieval manor house for Christmas. The guests are snowed-in and a second murder occurs. As the narrative unfolds, links are discovered between the two murdered women, and Jury and Plant join forces to solve the mystery. This cleverly plotted novel will keep you guessing until the end.

Grimes is a witty writer, perceptive about human nature and skilled at characterization. The 12 characters who stay at the country mansion are the rich and famous of the British literary scene. The pairing of the clever, attractive Scotland Yard superintendent and the titled amateur sleuth provides much of the appeal of the novel. Jenson (1985) calls Melrose Plant “one of Grimes’ most irresistible creations, with his ‘glittering green eyes,’ deliciously dry wit and his decision to abandon his fussy family titles.”

Martha Grimes is not a slavish follower of the classic detective novel. Although she uses the traditional mystery as the basis for her story, argues Malmgren (2000), she modernizes it by introducing ambiguity, uncertainty, and complexity. Her novels are grittier and more realistic than Golden Age novels.

Grimes’s academic background as an English college professor is evident in her fondness for literary allusions. In The Jerusalem Inn, she refers to two classic mystery pieces: Wilkie Collins’s novel, The Woman in White, and Robert Browning’s poem, “My Last Duchess.” Both narratives reverberate throughout the novel.

The Christmas setting is integral to story. The humble Jerusalem Inn with its nativity scene and missing baby Jesus reflects the action of the plot, underscoring the theme of true nobility. If you enjoy British mysteries, you will agree with Robert Wade’s final assessment of the novel: “witty, ingenious and thoroughly satisfying” (1984).

Grimes, Martha. The Jerusalem Inn. 1984. New York: Onyx, 2004.

Jenson, Lisa. “Murder at a House Party with Unlikely Wise Men.” The San Francisco Chronicle. February 20, 1985.

Malmgren, Carl D. “Truth, Justice, the American Way: Martha Grimes and Elizabeth George.” Clues 21, no. 2 (2000): 47-56.

Murdoch, Derrick. “It’s a Crime: An Uncritical Love and Affection for British Pubs and Literature.” The Globe and Mail. January 5, 1985.

Wade, Robert. “Spadework.” The San Diego Union-Tribune. December 16, 1984.