by Martha Grimes
Published by Viking Books
346 pages, 2005
A Summer's Lark
Reviewed by Caroline Cummins
Martha Grimes first found publishing fame in the early 1980s with her Inspector Richard Jury books, an eccentrics-filled mystery series set in England and featuring titles (The Blue Last, The Grave Maurice, etc.) derived from the names of British pubs. But in the early 1990s, Grimes began another succession of works, this time a semi-autobiographical look back at the small-town world of her Maryland youth (though Grimes doesn't specify Maryland as the backdrop for her storytelling). The End of the Pier (1992) introduced readers to the fictional hamlets of La Porte, Spirit Lake and Cold Flat Junction, all populated with diners, five-and-dime stores and neighbors who pretended not to know everything about each other.
Through her subsequent two books in this second series -- Hotel Paradise (1996) and Cold Flat Junction (2001) -- Grimes adhered to a meandering, lyrical style in which mystery-solving took a back seat to character exploration. Her latest installment, Belle Ruin, continues that pattern. Readers willing to sink softly into a nostalgic atmosphere of small-town timelessness will be content. But those hoping for resolutions to any of the several ongoing mysteries from the previous books will be disappointed.
With Hotel Paradise, Grimes switched her character focus from a diner waitress to a 12-year-old narrator named Emma Graham. Graham, who can only be described as "spunky," is clearly Grimes' stand-in. She's saddled with a dead father, a preoccupied mother (the cook at the Hotel Paradise) and a self-involved brother (the perpetrator of summertime theatricals in the garage behind the hotel), all drawn from Grimes' own youth. Graham is too intelligent for her years and, friendless, divides her summer days between waitressing at the hotel and sussing out local secrets. In Hotel Paradise and Cold Flat Junction, she figured out the truth about a mysterious drowning and then was shot at for her pains. As Belle Ruin opens, she's locally famous -- the Girl Who Cheated Death -- and is writing up her adventures for the town paper in fine purple prose.
She continues to be bothered, however, by the hanging threads left over from her previous adventures: Where is the man who saved her life? Why are the police still looking for him? Who is the mysterious, beautiful girl whom only Graham can see? But hey, this is a new book, so she's got to find something else to investigate. She latches on to the Belle Rouen, a once-glamorous resort hotel that's now nothing but a charred skeleton in the woods and a local mispronunciation ("ruin" for "Rouen"). A baby was once kidnapped from there and never found. This is all Graham needs to start taking taxis and trains from town to town, hanging out in diners and hitting up the locals for information. Oh, and she must also play a god, occasionally, in her brother Will's latest production, Medea: The Musical.
Critics have compared Graham's character (both favorably and unfavorably) to similar feisty preteens in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy and Donna Tartt's The Little Friend. All these adolescent characters share an itch to figure things out and a juvenile willingness to believe whatever sounds most dramatic. Graham, in her budding career as a newspaper writer, knows she shouldn't add details that don't exist, but she can't resist the melodrama. ("What about putting an owl in the story?" she wonders at one point. "None of this had happened, of course, but it would add some details.") Several times she thinks she's figured out the kidnapping -- who the baby grew up to be, what really happened on that fateful night at the Belle Rouen -- only to come across something new that throws all her conclusions off. It's hard for her to reconcile what might actually be with what she wants it to be.
In this, she's not alone. From the old ladies residing in the faded Hotel Paradise to the tough-minded sheriff and Faulkner-reading auto mechanic, everybody in her hometown of Spirit Lake has their own ideas of the way things are. Graham is forever trying to figure out who's lying, who's telling the truth and who's merely confused. Her brother may be the most honest person she knows, his only goal in life being to put on musicals; his cancan-kicking, cigar-smoking take on Greek tragedy is the hilarious high point of this book. He doesn't care about town mysteries; he just wants to put on a show.
Caught up in her own obsessions, it takes Graham nearly till the end of this novel to draw a connection between her brother and herself. "And then I suddenly realized that's just what Medea was about: bloody murder, revenge and lunacy," she says. "You could say it was a play for all of us." But Greek tragedies are the real thing, while Grimes' version is all soft-focus, amusing and eccentric instead of stunning and crazed. Perhaps a willingness to ground her milieu in something concrete, such as a state or even a time, would add the necessary gravitas. As it is, Grimes' portrait of small-town life provides a summertime where no one sweats and the coconut cream pie is never less than fabulous. Belle Ruin is indeed a beautiful ruin, a pretty fragment of a mythical past where mysteries exist but not even the author cares enough to solve them. | August 2005
Caroline Cummins is a contributing editor of January Magazine.