Fadeaway Girl

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011
Fadeaway Girl by Martha Grimes  --

This book is the most recent installment in Grimes’ Emma Graham stories. I’m so fond of this series - Emma’s one of my favorite young girls in literature. She’s twelve and smart - just at the border of her childhood, she’s believably self-aware and believably dramatic enough to mourn the loss. She’s a romantic and a dreamer, but also curious, clever, stubborn, and willful. Grimes does such a wonderful job expressing these aspects of Emma while expertly laying out the story that’s been unspooling for the whole series. (There is a long-ago murder, there are old secrets, new secrets, stolen babies, mistaken identities, and characters with wonderful names like Carl Mooma, Fern Queen, Ree-Jane Davidow, Mr. Butternut, etc. Grimes has always had a way with character names.)

Emma’s an intrepid cub reporter, detective, cocktail inventor, waitress, busybody, sneaky prankster, and cinephile. Her world is pretty large, considering that she’s too young to drive; I love her friendships and sometimes adversarial relationships with the adults around town - she’s taken seriously because she takes herself seriously.

The setting of these stories is a faded family-owned resort hotel in a small town near the water (in Maryland? Yes! I just found it - “This is a little town on the tag end of Maryland, nearly in West Virginia—“ ). Emma’s mother, Jen Graham, is the chef and everyone will tell you (particularly Emma) that no one can cook like she can cook. Food is a feature and I’m always hungry when I read these. Emma’s older brother Will is some kind of showbiz prodigy who is always putting on entertainments in the barn. (I love the comic glimpses we get of his spectaculars, which almost always involve pulleys, fake beards, and explosions.)

The year is never explicitly stated, but I’d guess the books are set somewhere at the end of the 50s or early 60s. It’s not a big deal as the stories happen almost out of time, but it helps explain the cost of things (Emma takes taxis and is a regular at the Rainbow Cafe, among other eateries) and the pace of things, which is slower than a lot of mystery stories. (Not that the late 50s or early 60s were inherently slower in some sort of olden times walking in molasses way, just that there’s not that modern technological internet cell phone soccer practice hustle bustle.) I think they must take place in summer, because Emma’s never in school. This also allows for lots of daylight investigating. However, Emma being Emma, she does manage to get herself into some scary after-dark scrapes.

Here’s a pull quote from the back cover from the New York Times Book Review: “Grimes saves her loveliest writing for the gloomy images of empty train station and tumbledown houses in which Emma takes such a melancholy pleasure…. an explosive comic exuberance.” Emma really does have a connoisseur’s appreciation of the melancholy pleasure.

If you decide that this sounds like something you’d like to read (it’s not for everyone), definitely start with the first book - there is one central mystery that keeps spiraling out and you’d miss a lot not to begin at the beginning. (FOUR STARS, read in March 2011.)

Here’s the order of the previous books:
#1 Hotel Paradise
#2 Cold Flat Junction
#3 Belle Ruin

Book cover bonus: both cover art and title refer to artist Coles Phillips who did a lot of work for magazines and advertising. Click on the link to see more.

If you like looking at book covers in general (I really do), check out Book Covers Anonymous  and CoverSpy.
14 comments on "Fadeaway Girl"
  1. This is a book I keep eyeing, but can't bring myself to pick up. I love oddly comic books and mysteries. So this seems up my alley. What the mix of humor/mystery/darkness? The back of the book makes me think it's like the love child of Wes Anderson and Donna Tartt or something.

    I feel like I've gotten so specific in my mystery reading that I'm like an old curmudgeon griping about kids today and how there's no longer such a thing as domestic beer. :)

  2. Hah! Love child of Wes Anderson and Donna Tartt is strangely apt. Character is paramount in this series, but she's got strong mystery chops. They're not dark in a guns blazing murderous rampage kind of way - more about the weakness of human nature. The violence (it is a murder mystery) is largely off stage.

    What kind of mysteries do you like? Have you read any of her Richard Jury (more traditional English Mystery) novels?

    But most importantly, if you do decide to try these Emma Graham books, READ THE FIRST ONE FIRST. Most of the time it doesn't really matter, but I think it does with these.

  3. Oh, I have a hard time reading things out of order/context. :) But wow, Hotel Paradise is hard to find. I tried to find it as an ebook (I love the immediate library gratification of my Nook), but it's only available as a mass market paperback version at libraries/bookstores. Odd. But I have it reserved at the library.

    I'm a sucker for mysteries in general. But as of late I've been reading the new breed of dark women writers, or so I would call them. Megan Abbott (more noir than mystery), Gillian Flynn, Tana French, and such. Older stuff like Chandler, Graham Greene's entertainments (again not mysteries, but I read Greene at any excuse). I'm less into the thriller title character series and more into mysteries based on dark character stuff. So I'm not looking for violence, just human nature murkiness. This sounds good. It will be my first Grimes novel. Thanks!

  4. That was me. Sorry, too many email accounts.

  5. I usually read things in order too, but sometimes in really long mystery series I'll sample from the middle if a book that looks interesting falls into my hands. (happens a lot at the library, strangely…) I'm so glad you found a copy of Hotel Paradise! I have no idea why her publishers haven't jumped on making e-books out of her back catalog - it seems like it would be money in the bank!

    I haven't read many (any) of the dark women writers you mention - I'm such a delicate flower that I tend to avoid certain kinds of suspense/violence/dark night of the soul fiction because I worry I will never sleep again. But I always want to read something good, so I'll keep an eye out.

  6. Megan Abbott is a lot of fun. If you like James M. Cain, or noir movies, you'll enjoy her. The first one I read that I liked was The Song is You. She's not so much violent as she is like a movie version of a Cain novel. But that woman can write.

    If you have other mystery writers you'd rec, I'm all ears. :)

  7. I'll check her out! I think I've only read one Cain novel, but I do like noir movies.

    Let me think about the other mystery writers. I used to read a TON of mysteries, then I got burned out and didn't read any for a long time, except to keep up w/ M. Grimes. (I'm back on them again, but in moderation.)

  8. Good lord, I loved this book. It took me a bit to get into it at first, but it hooked me. Loved it. I'm geeked for Cold Flat Junction. Thanks for the rec!

  9. I'm so glad you liked it! Your review makes me want to read the whole series starting over again. I forgot all about the blue devils - HOW COULD I FORGET?!

    And I can't seem to find my copy of Cold Flat Junction, which is similarly distressing...

  10. That is distressing. It's also irksome that the ebook availability of this series is so spotty. Just Cold Flat Junction and Fade Away Girl. Why #2 and not Belle Ruin? That seems odd to me.

    Blue Devils indeed! Ack, I loved that last scene with Emma and the Sheriff in the Rainbow diner. Only downside is the book kept making me hungry.

    That's one for you, Jen. Best rec so far in 2011. Though you've screwed up my reading priority list for the coming month or so. :p

  11. You kids today don't know how lucky you've got it - back in my day, we had to wait YEARS between new books in this series and now you can read them all in a month! Although I guess once you catch up you'll be in the same boat, because I'm sure hoping there will be more than 4.

    That is frustrating about spotty ebook availability - I think publishing is approaching a point of everything being available, but they're not there yet. (Sad Trombone noise here.)

    Again, I'm so glad you're enjoying the series!!

  12. Hello fellow blogger, I have just come across your blog while doing a little research about "Belle Ruin", which I have finished reading this morning as my last book for 2011.

    Good to see you, like me, have been thinking about where to place Emma's stories time-wise.
    I was trying to find information about Heather Gay Struther dresses, which are so often mentioned in relation to Ree-Jane, but couldn't find anything.

  13. Hello, Librarian - I don't think there's ever any definitive dates mentioned, but the more I think about it, the more it seems like the 50s. The way she describes the glory days of the big house (and house parties) it sounds like it could be the 20s, which would be in about the right time frame for Emma's stories 20-30 years later. People still alive to remember, but it was a long time ago.

    She may have made up Heather Gay Struther, but does she mention anything about the style of the dresses that might give a clue to the era?

    I think these books mainly take place in summer - Emma's never in school and is always working at the hotel.

    Grimes mentions Emma going to the cinema at least a couple of times - maybe she mentions particular films or actors/actresses? (which isn't to say Emma couldn't have been going to a revival house or something, but it's a place to start.)

    Clearly, I need to go back to the beginning of the series and read them all again!

    thanks for visiting!

  14. Hello Jen, and thank you for getting back to me about this!
    There aren't any proper descriptions of the Heather Gay Struther dresses, at least none I can remember. But since leaving my first comment on your blog, I have done a little more research and found some book reviews where they say that Martha Grimes grew up in Maryland and spent the summer holidays at a hotel where her mother was cook, and apparently put a lot of autobiography into her Emma-Graham-books.
    Some TV shows are mentioned, the family sometimes watch the Loretta Young show together, when was this airing? And Ree-Jane is mentioned as trying to look like Veronica Lake. When was she popular?
    Prices were what first made me think of the series not being set in our days. Emma buys 4 donuts for 90p! That surely isn't possible anymore, is it?


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