Emma Graham is a typical twelve year old girl living in a small, out of the way Maryland hotel owned by her family, except for one very important thing: she is not content to let mysteries lie fallow. Now this, of course, makes her a bit of a danger to anyone trying to keep dark and deadly secrets.
The prolific Martha Grimes writes two series, one featuring Detective Superintendent Richard Jury of Scotland Yard (which I also highly recommend) and this second one featuring child/woman sleuth Emma Graham. FADEAWAY GIRL is the fourth book in the series and the third I've read. Again, as with certain series, it's best to read this one in the order of their publication. I skipped the first one - don't know why - but started with the second, COLD FLAT JUNCTION (a brilliant book) and so, by now, I'm not surprised by the precocious Emma's need to get at the truth of things.
Emma's mother is the gourmet cook at the small and vaguely seedy, Hotel Paradise, and other than cook up meals three times a day for the few guests, she doesn't show up much in these books. Emma helps serve at breakfast, lunch and dinner and runs up and down to the fourth floor delivering the potent drinks she invents for the hotel's owner Aurora Paradise, a cranky old lady who never leaves the premises. Other than that, she's pretty much on her own to do as she pleases.
The time these stories take place has never been established, far as I know. But to me it feels like the late 50's, early 60's. This vagueness adds to the mystery of it all.
The hotel shares the grounds with several other buildings, one of which has now been turned over to Emma's eccentric and equally precocious brother Will who spends all of his time with his pal Mill, writing and producing stage productions like the just closed, 'Medea, The Musical'. Author Martha Grimes crowds these books with colorful eccentric characters who are always up to something, usually behind closed doors.
The Big Garage was once used for guests' cars and it could hold at least twenty of them. Now it was used as a theater, housing Will and Mill's productions.
Mill is Brownmiller Conroy. His first name passed down through his family. No parent could be so mean as to make up such a name. We shortened it to Mill.
As usual, there was a lot of commotion inside the Big Garage. And, as usual, at my knock, silence fell like a blanket dropped over the clamor. I don't know how they did this, I mean, silenced everything like flipping a switch. Will and Mill demanded total secrecy. They did not want anyone to know anything in advance of the production. I wondered why and decided that they wanted to burst onto the scene with all of it so new it looked like the opening of the world. As if none of us had really lived until the moment the curtain went up; as if the sun and moon had sailed around with blinkers on.
With family pretty much tied up in their own vocations, Emma is free to roam at will and solve whatever mystery she comes across. This fact has made her a kind of persona-non-grata at the local police station while giving her, at the same time, a kind of unique 'star' status. Since she'd solved a murder and survived her own attempted murder, she's been asked by the local newspaper to write about her adventures. She uses this as a kind of 'blind' to wheedle information when on the hunt for clues. (Generally the newspaper articles are the last thing on her mind.)
Emma has been interested for awhile in the alleged kidnapping of a four month old baby which took place at the Hotel Belle Ruin - since burned down - twenty or so years ago. She's never stopped wondering what actually happened. Much of the history of her corner of the world is tied up in secrets, inter-connected crimes, several murders, of which the kidnapped baby seemed to be the culmination. But since no ransom demands were ever made and the baby was never found, Emma doubts an actual kidnapping ever took place. So, what happened to baby Fay Slade?
No one but Emma appears interested in the sins of the past or solving this old mystery, much of which had been laid to rest until a no-account boy named Ralph Diggs gets a job at the Hotel Paradise and Morris Slade, the baby's father, shows up back in town.
A lot of what goes on in these books is atmospheric, there is a melancholy haze which permeates every ramshackle house, abandoned building and gloomy woods - even the names of places like Spirit Lake - which make up Emma's world. Emma herself is of an understandable melancholy nature, the sort of kid who feels things deeply and sees beyond the obvious, a kid who most of the time feels invisible in a world peopled mostly by adults. Though she is not above being devious and typically twelve when the occasion calls for it, she's learned to navigate. She has a knack of being able to manipulate the adults she comes in contact with as she travels from place to place either by a short train ride or with the use of a local taxi driven by Delbert, a talkative sort whom Emma can easily tune out while she thinks on what to do next. Most of the time though, she walks while she thinks over the latest nugget of information she's unearthed.
I crossed the short expanse of White's Bridge, barely a dozen yards, curved around Mirror Pond, where the shooting of Fern Queen had occurred, and walked the dirt road as far as Mr. Butternut's small house, a cabin, really, one great big room and a kitchen and a bedroom.
The place was lit up like a wildfire, even though it was broad day outside. A big bulbous porch light hung directly over the doorway, moth-shrouded like the ones at the hotel. He did not come directly to my knocking, so I called out, "Mr. Butternut! It's me, Emma Graham!" I heard him reply, but distinctly, and there was a shuffling about before he pulled open the door.
"Well, what in tarnation?" He sounded pleased.
I was sure for anyone to visit him was an occasion. I don't think he had any family left at all, and being stuck out here with no one around must have been hard on him.
"Hi, Mr. Butternut. May I come in?"
"Yeah, sure. You want some cocoa?"
We'd had it when I was here before, right after Fern Queen's murder. "Okay. I see you've got a good fire going in your stove."
It was an ancient cast-iron one and the fire was so hot the air felt blistered.
"Come on, come on, set yourself down."
There were two armchairs drawn up before the stove and I perched on one, then sat back as far as I could to get away from the heat. I think old people tend to be colder. "Listen, did you happen to notice a red sports car around here last night?"
"Sure did." He was rattling pans around.
I straightened, surprised I'd hit pay dirt again. I waited for him to go on, but he didn't; he just plunked down a small pan and now was getting milk out of his little icebox.
"Well...where? I mean, did he go by here?"
"You bet. My Lord, why any fool would want to drive a fancy roadster like that down this good-for-nothing road's beyond me. I ain't got no marshmallows." He was looking into an almost-empty plastic Jet-Puffed bag that I could see held a couple of marshmallows stuck in a corner. He just didn't want to share them, was all.
He poured milk into the pan and added cocoa and sugar and stirred this into a paste before adding more milk. He made a pretty good cocoa.
"Then what happened?"
"Nothin'. Things ain't always going on around here like in town." He said this with his back turned, and I could tell from the crinkle sound and his arm moving that he was sticking the marshmallows into his cup on the sly.
"I mean, where do you suppose he was going?"
"No place to go except Brokedown House and nobody don't live there except ghosts." He laughed silently, shaking like a custard. "Just Calhoun spooks. Now there use to be a lot of Randalls lived down this road, Bud Randall was one, and then there was..."
He went on with the same history about past families he'd done before. It must be that old people had to check up on the past to see if it really had been there.
It may seem as if lately there are quite a few books with 11 or 12 year old girls at the helm solving mysteries, but as I've said before, Martha Grimes' series is one of the originals. Grimes hasn't given up the capacity to surprise and shock while at the same time filling these stories with memorable eccentrics whom you want to keep reading about for as long as Grimes is willing to write about them.
To see the complete list of all of Martha Grimes' books, please go here to the 'fantastic fiction' website.