In November 2010, a New York Supreme Court judge dismissed most of the lawsuit brought by agent Peter Lampack against best-selling mystery writer Martha Grimes, his former client, and Penguin, her then-publisher. Lampack claimed that he was owed the commission on one of Grimes’ novels because the “option clause” —a standard part of many contracts that gives a publisher the right to look at a writer’s next manuscript before it’s offered to other publishers—was issued when he was still her agent, even though he wasn’t her agent when Penguin actually exercised the option clause.
“I’m sure there are many good agents out there,” Grimes, who’s best known for her Richard Jury mystery series, now says. “I just don’t know who they are.”
She doesn't have an agent anymore, technically speaking; her lawyer acts as her agent. She stresses that her new mystery The Way of All Fish, a satire of publishing, is an act of “pure imagination,” and her legal troubles with her former agent are only the “taking-off point” for the novel. She thinks publishing is “actually a lot of fun.” She pauses for a second. “I certainly enjoy being published, that’s for sure,” she says.
The Way of All Fish is a sequel to Foul Matter (2003); both books are the Get Shorty’s of the publishing industry, gleefully sending up greedy, double-crossing, hypocritical liars and the suckers they exploit. The novel opens as a pair of hit men, “two stubby hoods like refugees from a George Raft film,” sprays bullets across the aquarium in the Clownfish Café, a mediocre Manhattan spot where manipulative agent L. Bass Hess is having lunch.
Hess is suing former client, writer Cindy Sella, because he claims she owes him the commission on a successful novel he did n’t actually represent. Two other hit men, Karl and Candy, have been hired to off Hess, but they like to get to know their marks before they decide whether to kill them (they have standards). After meeting Cindy and learning about the legal mess Hess has made of her life, they adjudicate the situation: Hess is a sniveling weasel.
“My feeling is that people who work in publishing are very, very hardworking people,” Grimes says. There are still aspects of the trade she finds “hysterically funny,” however. Like, oh, this idea for a novel Hess is trying to hawk to an editor at a publishing house Grimes calls Quagmire: Hess describes it as an “existential prizefighting novel” about “two gay fighters having an affair who then find themselves in the ring together.”
Grimes is clearly getting her revenge in The Way of All Fish, and it’s a joy to watch her wreak it. “I don’t know enough about publishing to write about it,” she says. “I only know enough about it to make fun of it.”
Claiborne Smith is the editor in chief of Kirkus Reviews.