Martha Grimes – “Hotel Paradise”

24 Aug

GENRE: Mystery
PUBLISHER: Headline, 1997

The back blurb:
“Spirit Lake is not far from Hotel Paradise; it’s a small lake, neglected, partly covered with water lilies and overhung by tall, blowing grass. To those who have lived in the town for a while, it’s also notorious because a small child drowned there over forty year ago – a death that no one has ever been able to explain.
But now a local twelve-year-old girl has become increasingly obsessed with this death and, with her innocent knack of encouraging adults to reminisce, she begins to put together the pieces of a past and present puzzle.”

And it is. It is more a growing-up story than it is a detective story. That’s what to expect, the narrator of the story is a twelve-year-old girl who can’t do all the things a detective could and would do. But this girl has her own way of finding out what happened forty years ago. During the time of her “investigation”, a murder occurs and she learns about a second murder twenty years ago. More things to investigate, especially since they seem to be connected somehow. So this novel has the classic outline of a detective novel, but casting the girl as investigator moves the focus of the story more to self-discovery than discovery of the murderer(s)- for the reader and in the end for the girl. I don’t think it’s accidental that the girl’s name, Emma, is only revealed near the end of the book.

The solutions to these two murders – or are there really three? – are not clear at the end, at least it is not stated in the form: X did kill Y. It’s up to the reader, along with Emma, to guess who did it. She has an answer; she says so in the first chapter: “I think I know how Fern died and who killed her.” Then she takes the reader along as she recounts her days prior to this statement. But she never gives her answer to the question. The reader, who knows exactly the same as Emma because the book is written in first person, is on his own and can never be certain if the answer is right.

This, and the shifting of the focus away from “real investigation work”, is something I liked about the book. The writing is smooth and rather good. It conveyed the small town feeling pretty well. Another thing I liked is the structure of the book: how the last chapter takes up the theme of the first chapter and makes the book come full circle; how the casting of a young girl as narrator changes – or better – ads to the basic structure of a detective novel and turns it into something more, making this book not only about a discovery of a murderer but also about a discovery of something about oneself.

But I also had problems with this book. A lot of the characters are best described as eccentric. Nearly all have some quirks and strange behaviour. At least that is the impression I got from the Emma’s narration. There’s the old aunt on the fourth floor of the Hotel Paradise (a relative of Emma); the Wood brothers with their speech problem; Lola Davidow who runs the hotel together with Emma’s mother; Lola’s daughter; a always complaining customer of the hotel; a woman at a doctor’s house. Even Emma’s mother is questionable in her behaviour toward Emma. All these characters together in one book are just a bit too much for me to be believable. Some quirks seemed to be there just to make the book more interesting. Or perhaps they’re there to serve a thesis like “living in a small town leads to strange behaviour.”

The same can be said about some plot devices. Some seem a bit heavy-handed at moving the plot along, some seem to be there just to make the book longer. The Wood brothers’ speech problem fits in here. Emma gets conveniently access to a notebook from a doctor. But at least this gets the plot finally going (well, for me it picked up after that). Then there are the chapters spent on Emma’s tries to find out things about the recent murder of a woman – but she doesn’t want to read the newspaper. This ends with Emma reading the newspaper … And some facts are repeated (I don’t mean Emma’s obsession with food), as if a reader can’t get them the first time.

The behaviour of some characters is sometimes unusual: Emma acting a bit out of her age; the willingness of people to tell a strange girl all kinds of things – a bit unbelievable for me even if these people are lonely. But maybe this is the small town thing again. There are also frequent references to Nancy Drew books and a fortune teller describes Emma as “resolute”. Maybe these are enough reasons and only I had trouble. Quite possible, because I had trouble with placing this book in time, too. I always thought about it taking place in the 1940s, but I know that’s not true. Strange, but then at least I wouldn’t have this trouble to belief some of the characters behaviour.

But these small nit-pickings about plot contrivances and the number of eccentric characters are balanced by the beautiful language and an engaging combination of mystery solving and growing up. Granted, this happened only well after 100 pages for me (what kept be going before was: I finally wanted to write about a book on this blog) and after a rather unbelievable thing had happened, but that I still think this book is rewarding to read after its slow start speaks for it.

Would I recommend this novel? Yes.

Would I read this novel again? Probably not.

Grade: 3,5 / 5


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