Emma Graham is quizzical and persuasive, imaginative and pragmatic, shy and belligerent. And curious--oh, so curious. The cat hasn't been born that could challenge Emma in that department.
I can't let go of a thing--a puzzle, a person, a place. Once it gets my attention, I have to keep worrying it until it comes clear. I have to hang on, and it makes life really tiring. I work on these questions down in the Pink Elephant, a small chilly room which was once used for cocktail parties underneath the hotel dining room. The room's cold stone walls are painted pink, and there's a long wooden picnic bench and hurricane lamps. The candles give the room atmosphere. Cobwebs and dust and ghosts help too. Wrestling with quandaries small and large--there's nothing like it to lift a 12-year-old girl from the humdrum vagaries of life in La Porte, a small resort town whose crown jewel, the Hotel Paradise, is drifting into threadbare but dignified obscurity. Emma, who has lived at the hotel all her life (her mother is the hotel's cook), is a charming mix of David Copperfield, Scout Finch, Harriet the Spy, and Rudyard Kipling's mongoose, whose motto is "Go and Find Out." In Hotel Paradise, Emma tried to unravel the mystery surrounding the 40-year-old drowning death of young Mary- Evelyn Devereau. In Cold Flat Junction, that death takes on new resonance with the murder of Fern Queen. Fern was the daughter of Ben Queen and his wife Rose Devereau, Mary-Evelyn's aunt. Ben spent 20 years in prison for Rose's murder, and Fern's body is found just days after Ben is paroled.
Convinced of Ben's innocence, Emma sets out to track down the real killer. Her investigations mirror a delicate web of small-town relationships, expectations, and preconceptions. She slips through diners, garages, abandoned houses, and train stations, befriending taxi drivers, schoolteachers, and poachers: "You have to sneak up on what you want to know; you have to peek through windows at the facts so they won't run off and hide. You cannot go smashing through doors." When Emma looks through windows, she sees not only facts, but dreams, questions, and possibilities. Her quest is for answers, certainly, but also for her place in the world she interrogates so persistently.
Hotel Paradise was compared by certain readers to To Kill a Mockingbird and was in turn found wanting by some. Although both novels have powerfully personable preadolescent girls as protagonists, the comparison is perhaps less than just. Harper Lee's novel is rooted in the dust and grit of a particular time and place, and at least part of its power comes from its evocation of participation in or responsibility for that particularity. The Emma novels, however, are narrative tapestries with threads tantalizingly resistant to such grime. Their strength lies in the author's ability to slip the bonds of context; she has fashioned a shimmeringly lovely world that resists our impulse to categorize, to locate, to fix. --Kelly Flynn