This article was first published at Blogcritics
If you intend to read Fade Away Girl, the latest in Martha Grimes' Emma Graham mystery series, you would probably do well to read the first three books in the series first. It is not that you can't understand what is going on without having read the others; it is simply that there are so many more or less cryptic references and connections to people and events in those earlier books that they inevitably get in the way of new story. Not having read the other books myself—until I went down to the local library and checked them out—I must say I often found myself confused.
Novelists writing a series are faced with the problem of giving new readers enough information to understand who everyone is and any background they need without boring their old readers by rehashing things they already know from the earlier books over and over again. The more recurring characters there are, the greater the problem. It is fairly easy to avoid the problem if your central character is a rootless loner who rarely stays in one place for any length of time, or if he or she is a professional of some sort always working on different cases with one or even a few allies. On the other hand, if your detective is a twelve year old girl tied to a small town at the very bottom of Maryland and its environs, where not only is she a waitress at her mother's hotel and a reporter for the local newspaper, but a super sleuth as well, it becomes a real issue.
It is not one or two or even five or ten characters who move from one book to another, it is towns full of people: the waitress at the local diner and its grumpy owner, the sheriff and his demeaning deputy, the fellow who drives the taxi, the ancient great aunt who lives alone on the fourth floor of the hotel, and on and on. It is very easy to get lost in the crowds of people that Emma runs into in the course of her investigations. Then there are the constant references to events that took place in other books, and which she can't seem to get out of her mind: how she was nearly killed, other murders—Mary-Evelyn Devereau, Rose Queen, Fern Queen, a kidnapped baby. Most of which, at least at first, seem to have very little relationship to what is going on in the present book. Indeed, at first one has to wonder what it is exactly that is going on in this book, outside of what may be growing out of a precocious twelve year old's active imagination. Her mind as the sheriff says in the first novel, Hotel Paradise, may be "unlumbered by reality."
It is Emma Graham that is the heart of Fade Away Girl. She is the voice of the story, and if you can buy a twelve year old playing detective, if you can take her as seriously as she takes herself, and indeed as seriously as most all of the people she deals with take her, this is a novel you may well enjoy. Although there are times when Emma's behavior seems out of character for a twelve year old, most of the time it is not. She plays childish pranks; she has childish jealousies. She likes her doughnuts, hot chocolate and coke. She recognizes her ignorance about things sexual. And if she seems able to roam around the countryside without telling anyone where she is going and why, if she is able to inveigle all sorts of adults into helping her with her schemes and plots, if she is able to see what is going on when no one else can, well, after all, she is something of a phenomenon.
But she is not Nancy Drew. She has a voice that is uniquely her own. At one moment she can moan and groan about having to bring her brother's breakfast to him, and at the next busy herself making up clever, punning names for the alcoholic drinks she concocts for her great aunt. She can hide hot peppers in the food of one of the guests she doesn't like; she can charm adults into giving her all sorts of information. She can talk about the poetry of Frost with some sensitivity and at the same time ridicule Emily Dickenson. She can talk about Faulkner and then admit she's never read him. The reader, seeing everything, even Emma herself, through the girl's own eyes, is always left to question whether what he is seeing is real, or if it is simply her vivid imagination at work. The trouble is that more often than not despite her childishness she seems to see more than the adults around her. In a sense what you have here is a modern variation on the ancient theme of the wisdom of the child, and Emma Graham is a child you won't mind spending your time with.