My copy of Hotel Paradise by Martha Grimes has a cracked spine, is dog eared with chips broken off the corners of the cover and the pages are turning slightly yellow. I bought it new, but it is now well worn from multiple readings (I think this last go was read number three). It's as comfortable to hold in the hand as it is comforting to read. I can happily say that I enjoyed it as much this time around as the previous two. This is going to sound strange and it's meant to be a compliment, but it's soporific sort of story (and I'll explain that more in a moment). I mean that in a warm and cozy and contented sort of way. It's not a fast moving story. There is lots of detail and description, and lots of ruminating that goes on, but I enjoyed every minute that I was ensconced within its pages. It's best read on a lazy summer afternoon lying in a hammock, if at all possible.
Hotel Paradise is not a traditional mystery, though there is a detective/policeman in the story and a crime occurs. Not just one murder but two suspicious deaths. And it's all told through the eyes of a twelve-year-old girl. She's a little bit of a misfit, but an entertaining and wholly likable one. Let me begin with Emma Graham, the heroine (if I can call her that) of the story, and her world. If you want to know what Small Town, USA is like, just drop by the Hotel Paradise. I've yet to figure out where exactly the story takes place, but it really doesn't matter ultimately. It could stand in for so many small towns. It's somewhere where it snows in winter and is warm in summer. Although it was published in 1996 and I suspect it's meant to be set at about the same time, there is a timeless feel about it.
So, Emma. She's a Graham, though she and her mother and brother, Will, are the closest living relatives to the Paradises. The Hotel Paradise doesn't refer to a locale rather to a family. The last actual Paradise is Emma's great aunt Aurora who lives on the fourth floor. Actually it's better to say she has command of or inhabits the fourth floor. She's a cantankerous old woman, bossy and opinionated. If she doesn't like you she's apt to throw her dinner tray at you (along with the food sitting on it), though Emma is on her good side (if you can call it that) since she brings her creatively mixed cocktails. Aurora does like a good stiff drink.
Emma's mother is the cook at the hotel and famous for her abilities in the kitchen. Those abilities are much appreciated and often contemplated by Emma (expect a few hunger pains while reading by the way). Emma is often left to her own devices. She's expected to help wait tables at mealtimes but otherwise spends her time in the Pink Elephant (the hotel's basement) or hanging out in La Porte, the main town not far from the hotel. Emma is a thoughtful, intelligent girl and maybe a little quirky. She tends to get on better with adults, like Sheriff DeGheyn with whom she likes to"walk the meters"--checking which are expired and chatting with the Sheriff as he tickets the offenders, or Maud who works in the local diner. Neither talks down to her or condescends because of her age. Unlike Regina Jane Davidow, or Réjane as she likes to be called, four years older and another resident of the hotel. Rejane lives at the Hotel Paradise with her mother who is the hotel's manager. Lola and her daughter Rejan, especially Rejane, often make life difficult for Emma.
Emma is quite content to pass her free time with the sheriff or Maud or drinking hot chocolate (carefully and as unobtrusively as possible--removing the filmy skin from the top first) with two of the town's spinsters and local shopkeepers. She often finds herself lulled into a state of contentment, soporific contentment (I told you I'd get back to that one) chatting with the two elderly women. Mostly though she has a knack for getting the adults and older residents to talk about the curious death of a young girl, Mary-Evelyn Devereau, some forty years earlier. Mary-Evelyn was the younger sibling of the very odd Devereau sisters. A bit like Emma really in that she was often left on her own, but taken further as she was also ignored and perhaps even slightly mistreated. One day she took her rowboat out on the lake and drowned. It was declared and accident and forgotten about, but Emma obsesses over Mary-Evelyn and the Devereau family--certain that something untoward happened all those years ago and trying to work out just what it was.
And then the body of a woman is found. Shot but not likely self-inflicted. She's not from La Porte. Maybe from Cold Flat Junction. But no one steps forward with any information, and for days everyone speculates who she might be. Emma believes she might be a girl she spotted on the local train platform. The Girl is someone she believes might be related to the Devereaus in some way. As much as she asks questions in the hope of finding out who the dead woman is, she also doesn't really want to know. What if it is The Girl? And is there a link between the recent murder and the death all those years previously?
This is such a great story. In a way not much happens, yet you get such a vivid sense of Emma and the world around her. It's just the type of story I like--a mystery wrapped up in another larger story. You feel like you are there, too, in Spirit Lake or the Hotel Paradise or Cold Flat Junction. I can visualize these places and the people who live there. It may just be words on the page, but I have such a strong sense of what Emma is like and what she thinks and how she feels. For me, Grimes did everything just right in this story.
I've already got Cold Flat Junction, the second Emma Graham book, sitting on my night stand and am just waiting for when I have a little chunk reading time to get well into the story. I've read it before, too. I haven't, however, read the next two books: Belle Ruin or Fadeaway Girl but will be rectifying that this summer.