By Martha Grimes
Viking, $20.97 336 pages
Twelve-year-old Emma Graham has a taste for old crimes, haunted places and a ghost girl, so it seems unkind to suggest what she seems to enjoy most is mixing bizarre drinks for her 99-year-old great-aunt, Aurora Paradise.
Great-aunt Aurora lives in solitary splendor amid the remnants of her youthful glamour on the fourth floor of the rickety hotel managed by Emma’s mother in the sleepy little town of LaPorte. The big event of her day is Emma’s arrival as she brings such exotic homemade cocktails as the Rumba (rum and banana), Cold Comfort (Southern Comfort, brandy, creme de menthe and Orange Crush), Jack Frost (Jack Daniels, orange juice and brandy) and the Hollow Leg (100 proof whiskey, apple juice and a dusting of cinnamon). These are all Emma’s inventions, using whatever liquors she can pilfer from the hotel kitchen, and they get Great Aunt Aurora speculating about ancient unsolved mysteries.
Emma, who is a cub reporter for the local weekly newspaper and tends to brag about how she was almost murdered trying to solve a long-unresolved kidnapping of a baby, has developed a reputation as the local holy terror.
She operates by taxi (those were the days of dollar fares) to get from point to point and keep in touch with places like the Rainbow Cafe, where she scarfs down doughnuts and milkshakes; the five-and-dime, where a local kleptomaniac practices her art; and the tiny Oak Tree Gift shop next door to a mysterious shop where candles flicker all day.
She is one of a slew of colorful characters drawn by Martha Grimes in this second instalment of the adventures of the intrepid Emma. The little hotel has assorted eccentrics whose food tends to suffer if they complain to Emma, who also fills in as a waitress and knows the impact of a little jalapeno pepper in a salad for nasty Miss Bertha. There is glamorous but crazy ReeJane, who periodically has to be carted off for psychiatric treatment; the handsome Sheriff DeGheyn, who appears to consider Emma the cross he has to bear; and the editor who reacts with a mixture of admiration and alarm to his youngest reporter’s investigative talents.
And there is Emma’s brother, Will, who is organizing a theatrical production of “Murder in the Sky,” billed as the first murder mystery musical to debut in Western Maryland. He never lets Emma forget she is a pest. But Emma is the star of the plot, which tends to wander around, as does she.
On a visit to the delightfully named Mr. Butternut, she discovers the dead body of one Ralph Diggs, whom she has been investigating in terms of his link with a 20-year-old kidnapping of a baby from the wonderfully named Belle Ruin hotel. The question is whether the baby was a boy or a girl and was either kidnapped or killed and buried in the course of a ransom plot. As Emma says, “Too many bad things happen here.” She would appear to be right.
And don’t forget the ghost girl whom Emma has seen appear and disappear over time - one of the “fadeways” who come and go in her hometown and possibly her fertile imagination. The Emma books are an excursion into the wacky on the part of Ms. Grimes, whose wry sense of humor has been on regular view in her classic mysteries about Inspector Jury, into which she recently introduced a cynical dog called Mungo.
Yet oddly enough, the problem with the book is Emma. She is an unusual and intelligent young girl with some remarkably sophisticated tastes - she could easily make a good living as a bartender - and in her literary debut she was different enough to capture the reader’s attention. This time around, her endless speculation and self-absorption tend to make her a little tiresome. Twelve is not an easy age, and Emma makes it sound even more difficult.
The reliance placed by other characters, including the police, on her detective work seems more forced than funny. And what she will be like when she hits her teens you might shudder to think.
After solving the mystery to her own satisfaction, if not necessarily to that of those around her, Emma seems disconsolate as she writes her story and sees her journalistic revelations snatched away by bigger newspapers.
There is a hint that Emma has not gone away. She winds up by sitting in a place where she had “first seen the Girl” and watches a line of dark trees.
“I wondered if the trees stood there at the edge of the dark, guarding a great mystery. Or was all of this just my riotous imagination.” It may be that Emma will have to acknowledge that things are not always what she makes them seem. And perhaps she may fade away.
Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.
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