Bestselling mystery writer Martha Grimes --- creator of the popular Richard Jury novels, which carry the names of quaint pubs in picturesque British villages --- offers the third installment of a new mystery series featuring Emma Graham, a precocious American 12-year-old who lives in a small Southern town.
Emma’s return in FADEAWAY GIRL resolves the mystery surrounding the mysterious 20-year-old disappearance of a baby that began in COLD FLAT JUNCTION. It has been just three weeks since Emma nearly lost her life to a murderess in the sequel, BELLE RUIN. Emma, whose extracurricular activities include a job as a cub reporter for the local newspaper, has been writing a serialized story of her misadventure. It all began when she started looking into the alleged kidnapping during her free time between hopping tables and prepping salads at her mother’s genteel hotel and restaurant, and running rum-filled drinks to the attic apartment where her ancient Great Aunt Augusta sits, sips and holds court.
Emma’s poring over old newspaper stories results in only minimal success, and futile attempts to pry information out of the local sheriff have turned her into a sleuth. Her snooping nearly cost her her young life as she probed the long-ago disappearance of the baby from a hotel that later burned to the ground and that event’s possible links to two unsolved murders. Her keen interest in getting to the truth behind all the niggling loose ends that either elude or are ignored by those she thinks should care leads her into dangerous waters as she gets closer to unraveling the mystery. She asks questions of the gabby but unhelpful local cab driver on whom she must rely to travel from one tiny rustic village to another. The deputy sheriff, who makes Gomer Pyle seem as astute as Sherlock Homes, dodges her. Her inquisition of hotel employees, the librarian and the newspaper editor are met with indulgence for her writing ambitions.
When a handsome and charming stranger, Ralph, or “Rafe” as he prefers to be called, suddenly turns up and is hired by her mother at the hotel, Emma sees through his smooth façade. Believing his comings and goings are suspicious, she shadows him both in and out of the hotel. Soon after Rafe arrives, the father of the kidnapped child, Morris Slade, whose disreputable playboy behavior made him a prime suspect at the time of the kidnapping, returns to his hometown after 20 years, raising the eyebrows of everyone who knew him. When yet another body turns up, this time in an abandoned shack, Emma is once again in danger.
Emma’s quirky family, which includes her mother, who is diverted by the necessity of keeping a ramshackle hotel and restaurant afloat, leaves her two creative offspring to fend for themselves. Her theatrically inclined older brother, who spends his days writing, directing and producing plays in the barn, and Great Aunt Augusta, who will drink anything if it has enough alcohol and sugar in it, are wonderfully rich characters. This is a stock in trade for Grimes, whose colorful patrons of her famous British pubs keep readers coming back for more.
Will we see more of Emma in future novels? A mysterious girl, thus the title of the book, who fades into the shadows when Emma, and only Emma, spies her in the trees or near a pond, is never explained. In fact, Emma suspects she herself may be going crazy, like her poor friend, Ree-Jane. She is assured by her aunt, the sheriff and her doctor that she’s far too smart and observant to be losing her mind, but Emma is not quite so sure. Grimes never closes any door that would lead her fans to an entertaining read.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on March 28, 2011