Andrea Maria Schenkel: Tannoed

This book, based on the 1922 Hinterkaifeck murders I talked about earlier, has received many accolades. The German original was on the Spiegel bestseller list for a long time, has been praised here, there and everywhere and was made into a movie (English title: The Murder Farm). I´ll be upfront: I don´t see why.

“Tannoed” is very short – 120 pages in the German softcover edition. 24 of these are either blank spaces or contain a prayer litany quoted from a 1922 prayer book. That leaves 96 pages worth of text.

Two thirds of these consist of short statements from various locals people  about the murder victims, when they were last seen and the circumstances in which they were discovered. To piece together the events that led up to the murder in this way, from various perspectives that create a more complex picture in the reader´s eyes, is a legitimate writing technique. But I just recently re-read Dorothy Sayers´ “The Documents in the Case” where the same technique has been applied so much better. Where Sayers creates vivid characters whose statements give an individual insight both into their own personality and into the events they relate, most of Schenkel´s statements sound alike, exchangeable in tone. The people that are supposedly “quoted” are hardly characterized, they remain reduced to names and labels, and their opinions of the murder victims do not differ much from one another. The language, High German with a regional flavour, also feels contrived, but then if people who speak dialect in their everyday lives (as many country people do) try to speak High German, it usually has a contrived feel to it, so this is sort of acceptable.

Having read about Hinterkaifeck already, there was pretty little in these statements that was in any way new or surprising. About everyone of the people spoken to in the book has a real-life counterpart in a person that was actually interviewed by police in the Hinterkaifeck case, and the statements in the book differ little from the documented statements in the case. There´s the mechanic who came to the farm the day before the murders were discovered, the sister of the new maid who was killed along with the family, the men and boys involved in the discovery of the bodies, the parson, been there, done that, read that statement. Schenkel´s version of the case is set in the 1950s (but it might as well have been set in the 1980s), so the main difference between the original statements and hers is the odd reference to WW2 and the post-War years, which sometimes feels as if the author simply looked up main events of the times in Wikipedia and made sure to squeeze a mention of them in here or there. Schenkel was born in 1962, and it shows.

The structure of the book is jumbled (I do not call it “non-linear” on purpose).

It begins with an introduction by an un-named first person narrator who has grown up in Tannoed, then moved away, later returns after the murders have happened and is now supposedly the person conducting the interviews and gathering all the statements, or maybe isn´t:  We will never know, because this narrator is never heard of again afterwards. There is no “detective”, nor is there a framing plot outside of the actual murders.

We then get alternating “Lord have mercy on us” quotes from the prayer litany, statements from the villagers, and omniscient narrator passages narrated in present tense. Some of them accompany an unknown male going about his work on the farm (the murderer, who indeed must have stayed on the farm for days after the deed tending to the animals). Some of them accompany the murder victims in their last hours on the fatal night. And some of them accompany a vagrant named Mich who hides on the farm planning to rob it and becomes a witness to the murder. While these short vignettes seem to show a little more creative contribution by the author than the statements, if you are familiar with the Hinterkaifeck case, you will quickly realize that they, too, contain little that is not actually already provided by the case documents, embellished on a daytime court drama level.

In an interview in the annex of the book, the author says that she did read about Hinterkaifeck but then put that all aside and let her imagination roam – if that is so, it sure did not go very far. There is little to be found in Tannoed that is not available in more detail, and more important: more authentic, in the various Hinterkaifeck resources.

Peter Leuschner, the author of the two main non-fiction books on Hinterkaifeck, has in fact sued Schenkel for plagiarism. This is not at all surprising, since most parts of the book really give the impression to have been lifted from the available documents, shortened here and there, some names changed, some references to the 1950s forced in, but very little original work added.

It is more surprising, and saddening, that Leuschner lost his case, but I was told years ago by a lawyer that that´s simply the nature of legal cases connected with copyright issues. No matter how well documented your case may be, no matter how obvious it all seems, the outcome is never certain and depends completely on the judges. Sometimes I really do not have much confidence in our legal system.

Schenkel´s second book, Kalteis (Ice Cold), is also based on a true case:  This time, it´s Bavarian serial killer Johann Eichhorn, who was active in the 1930s, who provides the base for her Johann Kalteis. The case sounds interesting, but I plan to read up on the true Eichhorn and skip Schenkel´s version. This author, I´m afraid, is not my cup of tea.

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The Wench is Dead

During a stay in hospital, Inspector Morse comes across a monography on a murder that happened in 1859. Joanna Franks, the passenger of a canal boat was found dead in the water at Duke´s Cut on the Oxford Canal. The crew of her boat were tried and two of them eventually hanged for the murder. But something about the case seems off to Morse, and he starts reading up on Joanna´s life and times, and the circumstances surrounding the case…

This is the 8th novel in the Inspector Morse series, and probably not the best one to start with. Having not read any Morse before, I found the book rather tedious when it talked about the Inspector and his stay in hospital, and at least two minor characters were introduced with a full biography that actually contributed nothing to the story. But then, I read crime fiction for the background setting and the whodunnit puzzle, and tend to find it quite off-putting when the book blabbers too much about the midlife crisis, marriage problems or other neuroses and psychological hangups of the detective. In this particular case, Morse was not introduced or portrayed in a way that made me care about, or even get interested in him as a character, so the frame story surrounding the historical case was pretty much wasted on me. And while the historical case (the reason I picked this up in the first place) was considerably more interesting, there, too, were a few things that bugged me.

The first one was the way Morse immediately pegs the rape and murder victim as a potential seductress who brought on her own fate. Even though there is nothing in the monography that suggests this, from this moment on, he studies the case as if it was a certainty rather than his own interpretation (brought on by a dream that mixed up the case with his other bedside lecture – a sleazy novel, to boot). And of course the author has him be right and the subsequent discoveries support this initially unfounded view of the victim´s character.

Then, when Morse´s assistant – doing some research for him – comes across a Victorian trunk bearing the initials “JD” in police archives (Joanna´s initials from her previous marriage), he immediately considers it to belong to this case, which he is not very familiar with. Without any actual investigation or documentation supporting this guess, both he and Morse treat the items found in the trunk, as if it was fact that they had belonged to Joanna, they draw conclusions from them and don´t even consider the possibility that there might have been more than one person with those initials involved with a police case during the last 120 years. And these are supposed to be seasoned police officers. 

The height of Joanna plays another important role in Morse´s solution. He finds out about it by visiting her childhood home, and after some search, discovering marks where her parents had documented both her and her brother´s growth on a wall. But the latest measurement for Joanna – who was born in 1821 – dates from 1841, the year in which she married her first husband. While it is believable that a family would document their children´s growth like this, why would they do it well into the children´s adulthood? Most girls have reached their final height by the time they are 16 or 17, so it is quite unlikely that Joanna´s parents would mark the wall beyond that, and very likely, they would have stopped even sooner. It wouldn´t even make much of a difference to the case whether Joanna´s height as an adult was established at 16 or at 20, but the way it stands, it is one more thing about this novel that doesn´t sit right. 

All in all, it was a reasonably entertaining read but it did not make me want to read more from that series, or author. And for the life of me I can´t see why this novel received the Gold Dagger Award in 1989 for best crime novel of the year – unless everything else published that year was even worse.

Sharyn McCrumb: fandom mysteries

While most of the crime novels set from the 1980s onward can easily be classed as “approximately present”, and it doesn´t really make much of a difference whether the year is 1983, 1993 or 2003, I had a bit of a hard time ticking this category box for Sharyn McCrumb´s two Jay Omega mysteries, set in the science fiction and fantasy fandom of the 1980s. So much has changed in this particular scene since then, they almost seem to belong to the historical mysteries rather to the contemporaries now.

At the same time, that is one part of what makes these mysteries such a fascinating read. They are a bit like a time capsule, a glimpse into fandom twenty-five years ago; the time of mimeographed fanzines, fans writing to each other by snail mail, the very early stages of computer games and internet. Things that have changed and things that have stayed the same.

Bimbos of the Death Sun (1988)

This book introduces James Owens Mega, an electrical engineering teacher at Virginia Tech and, under the pseudonym of “Jay Omega”, author of the little-known sci fi novel “Bimbos of the Death Sun”. As Jay, he is invited to be one of the guests of honor of a local science fiction convention – not only his first event of the kind, but also his first contact with the world of sci fi and fantasy fandom. Fortunately, his girl friend Marion, professor of Eng. Lit., used to be an active fan herself and can help him find his way around a little so the culture shock is not too severe.

The first part of the novel accompanies Jay and Marion having a look around the convention, getting to know a few people – organizers, convention staff, big name fans and other guests, among Appin Dungannon, an author of fantasy novels and as famous as unpleasant. When Dungannon is found dead in his hotel room, pretty much every convention attendee had a motive. It is up to Jay and Marion to work out who had the means and opportunity and lure the killer into a trap.

The  book won the 1988 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Original Paperback Mystery. It is a delightful read. It is rumored that Appin Dungannon was based on Harlan Ellison – who was also the model for Isaac Asimov´s Darius Just in “Murder at the APA” – and has a reputation for being, let´s say, a difficult character.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harlan_Ellison

Zombies of the Gene Pool (1993)

When Marion accidentally bumps intoErik,  a colleague at the English Department and they mix up books, she discovers that said colleague is (under a pseudonym) in fact the author of a well-known science fiction novel, whose identity has been a puzzle for science fiction fans for decades. 

30 years ago, Erik used to be a member of a group called the Lanthanides – a group of big name fans, some fledgling authors, some fanzine publishers – who were famous for living together on a farm in Tennessee, and who had, on one special occasion, buried a time capsule on the grounds.

Time has gone by, and some of the Lanthanides have become successful authors, others have dropped out of fandom, some have become rich and famous, some are struggling to get by and some are dead by now. The farm has been buried by a reservoir lake long ago. But as the dam needs maintenance, the lake is being drained right now and the grounds are accessible again. So the former Lanthanides have decided to make use of the opportunity and open the time capsule, and Erik invites Marion and Jay to come along for the occasion.

The reunion quickly becomes a media event. But the night before the time capsule is retrieved, the party is crashed by one member of the Lanthanides who has not been invited, simply because he was thought to be dead – a fact which nobody really regretted, and who is now threatening to reveal some unpleasant big and small secrets from the past to the public. Every one of the group has some things that they´d rather leave buried in the past, so it´s no wonder that on the following morning, the man who was not-as-dead-as-everyone-believed is dead again, this time for real.

With the media surrounding the hotel, a scandal is about to erupt. But Marion, who has found the body, has also come across a few strange details, and she and Jay decide to investigate.

While it was okay on the whole, this book was a bit more cynical and not quite as amusing as “Bimbos” – I guess it really makes a difference that while “Bimbos” describes fandom at a particular moment in time (during the convention), in “Zombies” the passing of time is involved, and it drags in the usual musings about life, success and happiness. The view of fandom, especially of active and/or dedicated fans, is rather pessimistic.   

While both books provided a good read, I´d recommend “Bimbos of the Death Sun” over “Zombies” any day.

Published in: on September 29, 2010 at 5:29 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Kathy Reichs: Déjà Dead

Originally published 1997, German: Tote lügen nicht (2000)

Having occasionally caught, and enjoyed, episodes of “Bones” on TV, I was happy to come across “Déjà Dead”, the first novel of the Tempe Brennan seris, at a flea market the other day.

It was a brilliant read, and I´m definitely going to read more from this series.

The Tempe Brennan encountered in this book as the first person narrator is considerably different from the Tempe Brennan of “Bones” – according to Wikipedia, the TV version has more in common with the author, Kathy Reichs, than with her namesake. So this Tempe is a forensic anthropologist in her late 30s, living alone after a divorce some years ago, her daughter at college, far away. Tempe is also a former alcoholic.

Whereas in the TV series, Tempe is working in Washington, D.C., at least the first few novels in the series are set in Montreal, Quebec, Canada which does add a unique atmosphere to the setting. Tempe is set apart, and to some degree isolated, by her position as an American working in a foreign country, and while she is not the only woman at her institute, she is the only woman working with several male detectives in this particular case and has a hard time convincing them (especially one) to take her theory of a serial killer on the loose seriously.

When human remains are found on the grounds of an abandoned monastery, Tempe is called in to quickly confirm whether they are from an old grave, laid open by the elements, as everyone hopes, or a case for the police. All too quickly, it turns out they are indeed from a murder victim, brutally mutilated and dismembered.

Something about the find reminds Tempe of a former, unsolved case and she starts looking at that again. Soon after, more dead bodies turn up, all mutilated and dismembered, all of them female. Tempe is convinced that a serial killer is on the loose, but has a hard time convincing the policemen working on the case of her theory.

At the same time, her best friend, a fellow anthropologist who is doing a field study in the red light district about the subculture of prostitutes, is giving Tempe increasingly reason to worry – she acts strangely and unusually and at one point, confesses that in the course of her work, she has attracted the attention of a stalker.

Again and again, the notorious real life case of Jack the Ripper peeks out beneath the lines, starting with the combination of the motifs of a serial killer, mutilated victims, prostitution. The descriptions of the mutilations have some parallels to those committed on the real life victims of the Ripper, most obviously those of the woman murdered in her own home to those of Mary Jane Kelly – the Ripper victim murdered in her home. Did I mention that one of the suspects goes by the alias of “St Jacques”?

Talking about the suspects – there are many fictional treatments of the Ripper case; some are good reads, some are not. Each of them offers its own solution to the case, and sadly, so far I haven´t encountered one that might be even close to probability. Most of them either have the Ripper turn out to be a completely fictitious character, not based on anyone associated with the real life case (e.g. Michael Dibdin´s The Last Sherlock Holmes Story) or they pick a fictionalised version of the more sensationalist theories, having the Queen´s physician, a member of the Royal family, or a conspiracy of freemasons be behind the murders. Which is really only exciting the first time you read about it. By the n-th novelisation, graphic novel, movie, TV miniseries presenting this theory… yawn.

In a way, “Déjà Dead” can be considered another fictionalized treatment of the Ripper case, and while it is far removed from the real case in terms of temporal, geographical and thus cultural setting, in her line-up of suspects and characters Kathy Reichs does acknowledge some of the well-established Ripper theories that are generally considered more likely (…well, at least in comparison to the Royal Conspiracy) today. There is a teacher who behaves oddly – an obvious nod to Montague John Druitt – an even a madman who has exhibited violent behavior in the past and has at times been committed to an asylum, a wave at the David Cohen theory.

The David Cohen theory is, in my opinion, one of the more likely identifications of the Ripper, which makes it worthwhile elaborating on it. It originates from the 1894 Macnaghten memoranda,  which mention three major suspects, among them “a Polish Jew & resident in Whitechapel. This man became insane owing to many years indulgence in solitary vices. He had a great hatred of women, especially of the prostitute class, & had strong homicidal tendencies; he was removed to a lunatic asylum about March 1889. There were many circs connected with this man which made him a strong ‘suspect'”;  from information about the killer (and the police’s knowledge about his identity), revealed by Sir Robert Anderson (Assistant Commissioner CID at Scotland Yard) for the first time in an article in 1895, and later in his own book The Lighter Side of My Official Life (1910): “One did not need to be a Sherlock Holmes to discover that the criminal was a sexual maniac of a virulent type; that he was living in the immediate vicinity of the scenes of the murders; […] And the conclusion we came to was that he and his people were certain low-class Polish Jews […] I am almost tempted to disclose the identity of the murderer and of the pressman who wrote the letter above referred to. But no public benefit would result from such a course, and the traditions of my old department would suffer. I will merely add that the only person who had ever had a good view of the murderer unhesitatingly identified the suspect the instant he was confronted with him; but he refused to give evidence against him.” and, finally, from margin annotations in a copy of Anderson’s memoirs, mentioned above, beloning to the retired ex-Superintendent Donald S. Swanson. The annotations, in Swanson’s own hand-writing, are written at the bottom of the passage about the witness who refused to give evidence against the suspect: “because the suspect was also a Polish Jew and also because his evidence would convict the suspect, and witness would be the means of murderer being hanged which he did not wish to be left on his mind. […] And after this identification which suspect knew, no other murder of this kind took place in London. […] Continuing from page 138, after the suspect had been identified at the Seaside Home where he had been sent by us with difficulty in order to subject him to identification, and he knew he was identified. On suspect’s return to his brother’s house in Whitechapel he was watched by the police (City CID) by day & night. In a very short time the suspect with his hands tied behind his backs, he was sent to Stephney Workhouse and then to Colney Hatch and died shortly afterwards – Kosminski was the suspect – DSS

(Abdridged quotation from: http://www.casebook.org/suspects/davidcohen.html)

Unfortunately, there is still no “final evidence” that would solidify this theory as “the one” – there are good cases to be made for several other theories, which lack “final evidence” as well. So, after more than 110 years, we can still only be certain of one thing about the Ripper: We do not know who he was.

Returning to Kathy Reich´s novel: It would be going one step too far to assume that by identifying the killer in her novel, the author has also stated an opinion as to which suspect she considers the most likely to have been Jack the Ripper; but still, it is a relief not to see the usual conspiracy theories rehashed for the umpteenth time in this context.

Most importantly: The novel is not based on the Ripper case so strongly that you can´t enjoy it if you are not familiar with the historical case, or consider the work unimaginative if you are. All the parallels and nods mentioned are merely an added bonus for Ripperologists in a book that is a good crime novel in its own right.

The Hollywood Murders

George Baxt: The Marlene Dietrich Murder Case  (1993, dt.: Mordfall für Marlene Dietrich)

Hollywood in the early 1930s. At one of Marlene Dietrich´s lavish parties, a guest is poisoned: a Chinese astrologer and fortune teller, about to reveal a secret about “a great danger” connected with someone present. Police officer Herb Villon, who had come in the company of society reporter Hazel Dickson, immediately takes over the case – but he can´t keep curious Marlene and her friend, Anna Mae Wong, from meddling. The key to the murder lies in the victim´s past, which ties to her several suspects all of which were at Marlene´s party.

This was an entertaining read. Nothing too special, but a nice trip to Hollywood in its heyday, with a bit of humor and a great Marlene and Anna Mae. The story was conceived with a bit too much historic hindsight, however: Of course, the murder victim had to have been to Europe in her past, had to have met an ambitious young politician named Adolf Hitler there and had to have predicted a terrible future connected with him. This is then muddled with an international political conspiracy which involves Nazis, Russian bolshevists, an arms dealer, and more. The Second World War already overshadows the plot, as something planned at least 10 years before its actual outbreak, while other events of the 1920s and 1930s which would have been stronger on the contemporary minds, are hardly mentioned at all. It didn´t bother me too much until I read more books by the same author.

George Baxt: The Alfred Hitchcock Murder Case  (1986, dt.: Mordfall für Alfred Hitchcock)

Munich, 1925. Alfred Hitchcock, still an unknown British director, is directing  his first feature film, “The Pleasure Garden”, when two members of his crew are murdered and another has a nervous breakdown and is first institutionalized, then vanishes. The case is not solved.

“11 years later, in London, an old Munich acquaintance, ill and distraught, begs Hitchcock to read a spy thriller script. The script-deliverer is murdered on Hitchcock’s doorstep. The script itself features the abduction of Alma Hitchcock and police pursuit of Hitch (as a suspected murderer), while he searches for a master spy in order to clear himself and rescue his wife. Alma is kidnapped, Hitch is almost framed for murder and he hares off, chased by Scotland Yard, in pursuit of a double-agent.” (Publishers Weekly). 

It is a really nice idea to have Alfred Hitchcock as the protagonist of a story that could be one of his own movies – including the obligatory cool blonde woman and, of course, a MacGuffin, Hitchcock’s famous red-herring device. The book is more of a spy thriller than a straightforward murder mystery, though.

George Baxt: The Greta Garbo Murder Case  (1992, dt.: Mordfall für Greta Garbo)

Hollywood, 1941. Greta Garbo has just lost her studio contract and lets her neighbour Peter Lorre talk her into accepting the starring role in a lavish independent production on Joan of Arc. But something is decidedly odd about the whole venture, and the production has the attention of the FBI and the local police under Herb Villon, long before a body is found in an abandoned house that belongs to the millionaire producer…

This was the most recent book by Baxt that I read – and the weakest one, perhaps because I could not read the book on its own but always had the comparison to the other two in the back of my mind. The characterisation of Greta Garbo was just too similar to that of Marlene Dietrich (main difference being, Marlene loved cooking and Greta was melancholy), including the attitude that of course she can play along with the suspect to draw him out – after all, she played a spy once. Both books even have a German representative make a generous offer to the movie star to get her to come back to Germany and work for Hitler and the Reich. (Which, of course, both divas decline). The witty quotations, present in all Baxt´s books so far, felt somewhat contrived by now, as if he had had a “Famous Quotes” dictionary by his side when writing and just forced them in wherever he could. The actual murder happens rather late in the book and the focus is – again! – less on the investigation and the murder mystery aspect of the story (which is what I´d expect from a book with So-and-so Murder Case in its title) than on the conspiracy/spy story aspect. And even though with this book set in 1941, the underground Nazi conspirator element is perhaps fitting better than in the other two, GEEZ!  Mr.Baxt, are there no other solutions you can offer to your readers? Were there no other criminals in Hollywood´s heyday?

These novels are listed as part the “Jacob Singer mystery” series which is puzzling because none of them have even a supporting character of that name. In the two of them that are set in Hollywood, the cop in charge is Herb Villon.

Nevertheless, here´s an overview of Baxt´s Hollywood-related murder novels:

1. The Dorothy Parker Murder Case (1984)
2. The Alfred Hitchcock Murder Case (1986)
3. The Tallulah Bankhead Murder Case (1987)
4. The Talking Pictures Murder Case (1990)
5. The Greta Garbo Murder Case (1992)
6. The Noel Coward Murder Case (1992)
7. The Mae West Murder Case (1993)
8. The Marlene Dietrich Murder Case (1993)
9. The Bette Davis Murder Case (1994)
10. The Humphrey Bogart Murder Case (1995)
11. The William Powell and Myrna Loy Murder Case (1996)
12. The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Murder Case (1997)
13. The Clark Gable and Carole Lombard Murder Case (1997)

I´m reading the Dorothy Parker one next. If that has Nazi spies in it, too, I´m going to scream.

Leonie Swann: Three Bags Full

  • Original German title: Glennkill: Ein Schafskrimi, 2005

George Glenn´s flock of sheep has a wonderful life. Their shepherd loves them, has  named them, he breeds them for their wool, not to be slaughtered. He even reads to them.  But one day, this peaceful existence comes to and end when the sheep find George dead on their pasture, a shovel stuck in his breast.

Even for sheep, it is obvious that he did not die of natural causes. And so, the flock decides to find out what happens. Fortunately, George has read them half a whodunnit once and they know how to go about. Sir Richfield, the lead ram, has the best eyesight, Maude has the best sense of smell. Mopple the Whale has not only the largest appetite but also the best memory. Othello knows humans. And it´s up to Miss Maple, the most intelligent sheep in Glennkill, to piece everything together and work out who the human wolf in sheep´s clothing is.

The sheep quickly find out that a lot of humans are not quite what they seem. Everyone in the small community of Glennkill has secrets – including George. The picturesque village hides the knowledge of a murder in the past which turns out to be a key to the murder in the present (though not quite in the way the mystery-savvy reader expects).

This novel is thoroughly enjoyable – a gripping mystery that keeps you turning the pages, written with a keen sense of humour, as well as knowledge about sheep and their behavior.  By the end of the book, you´ll find yourself sorry to leave the flock.

 

Southern Comfort

Martha Grimes:  Emma Graham Mysteries

  • Hotel Paradise (German: Das Hotel am See), 1996
  • Cold Flat Junction (German: Still ruht der See), 2001
  • Belle Ruin (German: Die Ruine am See), 2005

While these three novels are closely connected – each volume picks up right where the previous one left off – they can also be read on their own. Loosely related to the trilogy is

  • The End of the Pier (German: Was am See geschah), 1996

which is also set around Spirit Lake and features Emma´s grown-up friends Maud Chadwick and Sheriff Sam DeGheyn.

Hotel Paradise

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12-year-old Emma lives – and has to work part-time as a table waitress – at her family´s rundown hotel in a lakeside resort that has seen better days as well. Without any peers in her vicinity, Emma becomes fascinated by the story of another isolated 12-year-old from the past: Mary-Evelyn Deverau, found drowned in Spirit Lake 40 years ago. Apparently, Mary-Evelyn, who couldn´t swim, rowed out on the lake in the middle of the night wearing a party dress and fell off the boat.

Emma finds this (understandably)  strange and begins to investigate, using every spare minute to roam around and ask anyone who might possibly remember anything about the girl, her family, and her death. Then, another murder occurs, right in the very present, and the victim – Fern Queen – turns out to be related to the Deverau family…

Cold Flat Junction

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Emma continues to investigate the story of the Deverau family, which contains yet another murder in the past. Rose Deverau – the youngest of the four sisters Mary-Evelyn lived with – had married Ben Queen against her spinster sisters´ will. Their daughter, Fern, was just recently found murdered. And twenty years ago, Rose had been viciously stabbed to death. Public opinion suspects Ben Queen, who had never denied being his wife´s killer and whose return from prison coincides with his daughter´s death. But Emma – who has actually met Ben – has her doubts. By now firmly convinced that Mary-Evelyn has been murdered, her investigation into Rose´s death also leads her to a deeper understanding why the little girl had to die.

 Belle Ruin

n146946Emma becomes fascinated by yet another mystery of the past. This time, it´s a baby that was stolen twenty years ago from a hotel room while the parents were attending a ball in the same building. The child was never heard of again; investigation seems to have been closed quickly and things were hushed up, due to the wealth and influence of the family – who  turns out to be connected to the Deveraus once again.

 

These are not straightforward mystery novels. The reader has to puzzle the story of the Deverau family together just as Emma does, and even after three volumes, much remains unsaid.

The considerable charm of these novels is in the Southern Gothic setting and shrewd characters.

Emma roams the small and sleepy towns around the former lakeside resort that seem strangely depopulated. Most residents are elderly adults – the few children that Emma encounters are distant and even a little eerie. There´s the diner in which the same people sit on the same chairs every day, with so little variation that even a passing 12-year-old becomes exciting news.  There are houses, hidden in the woods, that  have been abandoned for years, but remain fully furnished – as if their occupants had just gone out (or vanished) minutes ago. Vanishing, or fading away, is a recurring motif that comes up again and again; as personified by the mysterious, ghost-like girl Emma keeps seeing again and again who eerily looks like one of the murder victims in her youth.  

Another recurring motif is isolation. Emma herself is isolated by having no friends her own age around; she does not belong to the few children that appear in the novel and is not yet an adult, either. In fact, when, in the second book, her mother goes on a holiday trip with the hotel manager and her daughter and even Emma´s brother Will has been asked to come, though he declines, while Emma is left back, she hardly even seems to belong to her own family. And Emma is just one of the many characters in these stories that are alone even when surrounded by others.

The characters are a delight to encounter (at least within the pages of a book). There´s Emma´s shrewd great-aunt Aurora, who lives in one of the upper floors of the hotel, surrounded by mementoes of her past like a cocktail-slurping Miss Haversham. There´s the Sheriff and Maud, best friends constantly bickering. The speech-impaired brothers, Ulub and Ubub. Faulkner-quoting master mechanic and poacher, Dwayne and spoilt teenage brat Ree-Jane.

The Emma Graham series has a lot in common with Harper Lee´s “To Kill A Mockingbird” without being quite as political. The novels also remind me of the flashback parts of “Now and then” (movie), “Divine secrets of the Ya-Ya sisterhood” (novel and movie adaptation) with a little “Stand by me” (movie, after a short story by Stephen King) thrown into the mix, as it´s Emma´s last summer before becoming a teenager, growing up, and her experiences and encounters make her realize a lot about life, human nature, and her own personality.

 And this is some of what Martha Grimes had to say about her Emma Graham series:

“The novels evolved out of my wanting to write a “trilogy,” the first being THE END OF THE PIER. This story actually happens some time after the other two, although it was written first. Given the content of THE END OF THE PIER it couldn’t have happened before Emma’s story or she certainly would have made much of it. When I finished HOTEL PARADISE I knew that although the story didn’t have to be “tied up” — given that none of these three books is a mystery — still there were questions I, myself, wanted to answer, so that’s how COLD FLAT JUNCTION came about. Now, I guess there’ll be another one because there are still questions that nag me. Who is this Girl that Emma keeps seeing? … It’s not Emma’s curiosity that keeps her on this case. It’s her unconscious knowledge that if this awful death could happen to Mary-Evelyn Devereau, it could happen to her, too. She’s also 12; she also lives with people who appear to be indifferent to her. Emma is scared, although that might come off as her “nebbiness.” (I love that word.) … many of the characters are based on real people and were just as I’ve described them. … Yes, there was even a Miss Bertha.”

http://www.bookreporter.com/authors/au-grimes-martha.asp