Cold Flat Junction


(This column was first published in the May 10, 2001 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)


Martha Grimes developed her fine reputation with a series of detective stories featuring the Scotland Yard inspector Richard Jury and a delightful crew of English villagers including most notably the aristocrat-in-denial, Melrose Plant. Most of those 16 mysteries were assigned names of real English pubs like The Dirty Duck, The Old Fox Deceived, and The Five Bells and Bladebone.


Now Ms. Grimes writes about a 12-year old girl, Emma Graham, daughter of the proprietor of the village inn, Hotel Paradise, which served as the title of the first in this series. Her newest title and the one I comment on here is Cold Flat Junction (Viking).


Emma is no Nancy Drew. These are richly satisfying adult novels, loaded with wonderful characters, their qualities fully painted by a few deft strokes, and well stocked too with Grimes' laugh-out-loud humor. I had better qualify that word adult, which has too often come to mean full of profanity. Here I recall only two such words and those are used in the perfectly appropriate context of a youngster trying to adopt the equally inappropriate usage of an older companion. The adult quality I speak of here relates instead to the leisurely pace of this well-told story. In fact, the story telling is far more important than the story itself.


Consider, for example, these introductory paragraphs:


"It's been forty years since the Tragedy. That's the way people say it, in that awed, excited way you know means they wish it would happen all over again. Most people seem to have forgotten, or perhaps never knew there were two Tragedies, perhaps because one of them happened in Spirit Lake and one in Cold Flat Junction. Now, if you include the murder of Fern Queen, there are three Tragedies.


"Cold Flat Junction. It's the kind of place you might look out on from a train window and think, Thank God I don't live here, what a boring town, what an empty place. It is an empty place, and maybe even a boring one, sometimes; but I think you'd be wrong to pass it by; you should alight from the train and stay awhile, which is what I did.


"There's something about the place itself that I feel when I sit on one of the benches on the railroad platform and look off over the empty land to that line of navy blue trees so far away. The land and all of the woebegone town seem stripped of a protective layer that other places have and can hide behind. It's the layer of busy-ness, profit, community pride; bunting on July the fourth; flower baskets hanging from lampposts in the spring, all ballooning up with civic pride. Cold Flat Junction has shed all of this, if it ever had it.


"I cannot let go of them, these Tragedies. 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.


"Ghosts do not frighten me (as long as I don't have to see them). Ghosts are said to haunt places where they died, if they died with things on their minds that they have to find answers to. I hope they find their answers. As for me, I see myself wrinkled and twiglike and dying -- well, dying, anyway -- still with this weary worrying problem on my mind, and then coming back and haunting the Devereau house, wondering about Rose, Mary-Evelyn, Ben Queen, and Fern -- to say nothing of the Girl.


"But you've probably forgotten all this as you've been going about your own business. Probably, you've forgotten my name, too, which is Emma Graham. I'm twelve years old. And if you think I shouldn't have waited so long to tell you more of this story, just remember:


"I haven't been away. You have."


As in her other novels, Ms. Grimes fills this one with richly observed characters -- the guests and staff of the hotel, the sheriff and his assistant, the ever-reluctant taxi driver, Emma's brother and his fellow thespians, and other villagers. The story gains power from Emma's interactions with these townspeople. Here, for example, is the first part of her visit to a diner where she seeks only how to find Louise Landis. Anyone who spends time in a local restaurant knows similar "regulars."


"I waited for the train to pull out, and when it had gone, I looked out again over that cropped, empty land on the other side that stretched away to that far-off line of dark woods. Then I set my feet in the direction of the diner, which stood across from the Esso station and which was the place I always stopped for information, and of course, food.


"Its interior was by now familiar to me; I could see it perfectly in my thoughts when I was somewhere else. The counter, where I always sat, was a kind of half-horseshoe design with four seats going around the end curve. There were tables with chrome legs and different-colored Formica tops; a few booths were installed in the corner nearest the door. The booths were dark red Naugahyde, and one torn seat back was bandaged with silver duct tape. It all gave the impression of being furnished with leftovers, not enough of any one thing to fit the place out correctly. Skimpy flowered curtains too short to reach the sill hung at the small windows. I took my usual seat at the curved end of the counter and pulled out a menu. It was the same.


"So were the customers. I recognized all of them, including the married couple in a booth. There was Billy, the one who looked like a truck driver but probably wasn't, as he spent so much time in Cold Flat Junction, at least in the diner. Down the counter were the two whiskered men wearing the same blue caps that looked like those old railroad caps you see in pictures. One was named Don Joe; I think the other was named Evren. There was a heavy-set, chain-smoking woman in thick glasses who sat at the counter. And of course, the one waitress, 'Louise Snell, Prop.' (This was on the badge she wore on her uniform.)


"Now, here I came, blowing in like the dry wind that carries grit and sand across the railroad tracks, and no one seemed to think it peculiar that this was the fourth time I'd been here, unaccompanied, as usual, by any adult. The first time, Louise Snell had asked, in a friendly and not nosy way, where I was from, or what I was doing here in her Windy Run Diner. My reason had been that my dad's car had broken down and it was being fixed over at the Esso place. The times I had come before today had been information-gathering events. Once for Toya Tidewater (who I never found) and again for Jude Stemple (who I did).


"'That car done been fixed yet?' asked Billy.


"This question was not asked in a joking manner, but in a small-talk way. Would that car still be at the Esso station after nearly three weeks? But this didn't faze them one bit. Nothing much did. Things just didn't seem to change here, at least that's my impression. It accounts, I guess, for the mysterious quality of Time, as if Time had been misplaced and we all had to get along as best we could without it....


"I'd finished looking at the menu, still making up my mind as I waited for Louise Snell to come for my order, and she did.


"'What'll it be today, hon?'


"Thinking of the ham pinwheels with cheese sauce my mother had left for our lunch, I had to check with my stomach to see how it felt about the hot roast beef sandwich. It told me the roast beef would be too much, and I had better just settle for pie and a Coke. The pies were displayed in a cupboard behind glass. The chocolate cream looked really good so I ordered that.


"Instead of starting right off with asking Louise Landis's whereabouts, I decided that mentioning Ben Queen would be the best route to take to her. After all, it'd been all over the papers that police were looking for him 'to assist in their inquiries' into the shooting death of Fern. Since Ben Queen came from here, they'd regard the place itself as more or less famous and would be glad to talk about it. I smiled at everybody to get them feeling friendly toward me, but it was a wasted smile, as they were always glad to see a stranger here, even if the stranger was a kid.


"I asked, 'Doesn't that man police are looking for live in Cold Flat Junction?' I mustered up my dumb look. But as soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew it really was dumb, for the question set off a spate of reactions that would go on and on until doomsday and would never get to Louise Landis."


And indeed she is right for this leads to the information she seeks only after a long conversation among the diners.


But not all is open and friendly. Ms. Grimes can provide chills as well. Here is Emma visiting an abandoned house:


"Brokedown House wasn't big, but still it seemed to loom. Whatever was left over from light outside did not penetrate inside. I switched on my flashlight. The place was still furnished with wicker chairs and tables and a love seat. If they hadn't been painted white I don't think I could have made out their shapes. Then I caught my foot on the corner of a heavy footstool and stumbled and dropped the flashlight. I straightened up. I thrust my arms out the way you do when you're going by touch. For a few moments I felt I knew what it was like to be blind. I passed through an archway that might have been to another part of the living room or parlor. I think there were bedroom doors on either side of this part of the house. I groped for my flashlight, although the sound it had made when it fell told me that it had rolled and was out of reach. Because there'd been light a moment ago, the lack of it made the darkness darker. All I wanted to do was leave.


"Mr. Butternut must have shuffled in behind me. There was total darkness until he clicked on his flashlight and shined it right at me. 'Get that out of my face!' But the light remained. I brushed at it as if it too were cobwebs.


"'Girlie! Girlie!' His voice came from a distance.


"From outside, from somewhere up the path. That moment looking into that white light must have contained every fright I ever felt. It held the nights when I was three or four and knew my bedroom at night was the most dangerous place on earth (I would have to go sit on the floor outside my mother's door); it held the day I got lost in a crowd of people doing their Christmas shopping, walking around me as if I were a rock in the middle of a stream; it contained the time Mrs. Davidow had gotten so furious with me she lay down on the floor and beat her heels; it held the doctors' needles, the dentists' chairs. The fright was all of that, it was acid, it was all of that distilled into that moment when the light was thrown, like liquid, full in my face."


This author even wrote one of her mysteries, Send Bygraves, as a poem. I think that that must have been an easy transition as, to me at least, her prose carries much of the quality of that Victorian storyteller in poetry, George Gordon Byron. The structure of her writing is different but the combination of rich humor and deep insights are like those of "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage" and "Don Juan." Read her when you can give Ms. Grimes your full attention. You'll be well rewarded.