The heroine-sleuth of Martha Grimes' "Fadeaway Girl" is 12-year-old Emma Graham, whose hard-working single mother owns a small hotel in La Porte, Md., a small town on the West Virginia border.
This is the second in Ms. Grimes' new series, and a lot of the story depends on events that took place in the earlier "Belle Ruin." In that novel, set in the naively innocent 1950s, the precocious Emma solved a murder, but was herself almost murdered in the process. This has made Emma something of a celebrity in the village, and has landed her a part-time job as a cub reporter for the local newspaper, where she is working on a series of articles about her experience.
For those of us who may not have read "Belle Ruin," the author's frequent references to the earlier crime are confusing and annoying -- the more so because in the present tale, Emma is concerning herself with another mysterious event of the past: the strange disappearance of a 4-month-old baby that took place 20 years earlier.
The new series is not nearly as compelling as Ms. Grimes' iconic Richard Jury collection. In that series many of the characters were caricatures of British society, but every one came vividly to life and nearly jumped off the page. By contrast, Emma is bright, likable and cute to a fault, but totally unbelievable.
From the start, it's hard to accept that any child or adult in rural Maryland at that time could have been exposed to the literary or historical references that Ms. Grimes imparts to this remarkable young woman, even if she had an unusually high IQ and natural instincts for logic and human psychology. For another, it's unlikely that any well-meaning mother would give a 12-year-old daughter the amount of undisciplined freedom than Emma takes for granted.
Moreover, the actual mystery and its predictable solution make little sense, and are almost relegated to the background, as the reader is absorbed into Emma's shenanigans and ruses. Those are rather funny, as the pre-teener outwits the adults around her. Sometimes it is in the cause of ferreting out information about the allegedly kidnapped baby, which she does very well. At other times Emma plays childishly immature pranks, such as substituting habanera peppers for sweet pimentos in the salad of a cranky old lady in her mother's hotel. And she can mix an all-but-lethal cocktail for the alcoholic dowagers who inhabit the hotel's top floor.
There's not much real action until about 60 pages before the end, and even then, it's not very exciting or believable. Still, if you can suspend your disbelief sufficiently to get into the odd crimes Ms. Grimes has created, there will be frequent moments that are entertaining and amusing.
Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor.