“Maybe everyone lives with terror every minute of
every day, and buries it, never stopping long enough to look. …
Sometimes I think we’re all tightrope walkers suspended on a wire two
thousand feet in the air, and so long as we never look down we’re
okay, but some of us lose momentum and look down for a second and are
never quite the same again: we know.”
With this, Dorothy Gilman not only opens an
intriguing door into her mystery novel “The Tightrope Walker”, she
introduces us to its very appealing protagonist, and narrator, Amelia
Jones. Amelia, age 22, is the only child of a disturbed mother who
hanged herself knowing full well it would be her then 11-year-old
daughter who would find her. Amelia’s
father died when she was 17, leaving her in the not-so-loving care of a
psychiatrist. She is
uncertain of herself, knows very little about the world outside her
neighborhood in Trafton, Pennsylvania, still has nightmares about her
mother, and has only one happy childhood memory: her favorite book, a
fantasy entitled “The Maze in the Heart of the Castle”.
Then, one day she spots a merry-go-round horse in the window of
an antique shop and buys it, on impulse.
A week later, there’s another one in the shop window.
Well, you can’t fit many merry-go-round horses into a single
room in a boarding house, and there is this matter of her inheritance
from her father – so Amelia winds up buying the whole shop, complete
with an upstairs apartment, which she happily moves into.
Among the merchandise in her newly-acquired
property, Amelia finds a lovely old hurdy-gurdy, which she claims for
herself. One evening, while
playing the instrument, she finds a note stuck inside.
The note reads, “They’re going to kill me soon – in a few
hours, I think – and somehow they’ll arrange it so no one will even
guess I was murdered. …
Perhaps I could hide these words somewhere in a different place in the
hope that one day someone will find them – that would make Death less
lonely. And so – should
anyone ever find this – my name is Hannah …”
Amelia knows immediately upon reading the note that
this is real. It’s not a
joke, it’s not a bad dream, and it’s not something she can ignore,
so this begins her quest. Who
is – or was – Hannah? Was
she actually murdered? Were
her killers ever caught? This
most unlikely detective embarks upon a journey out into the world she
knows so little about, trying to solve a murder she’s not even sure
happened. She meets new,
fascinating, and sometimes scary people: the moody artist who sold the
hurdy-gurdy to the original owner of the antique store, his amoral
model/girlfriend who got the hurdy-gurdy as a “gift, for services
rendered” from an eccentric little millionaire with a penchant for
whips and leather, and so on along a path from Trafton to New York City
and eventually up to Maine. Most
importantly, Amelia comes to know and love a graphologist named Joe
Osbourne, who decides once he’s read and analyzed Hannah’s note that
he can’t let Amelia do this alone, and accompanies her on the trip.
The ever-scarier trail turns up tragic love
affairs, a very dysfunctional upper-class family, a social-climbing
politician and his ambitious Machiavellian manager, and eventually a
hidden manuscript, the long-lost sequel to Amelia’s beloved “Maze in
the Heart of the Castle”. Amelia
also discovers herself, as a strong, intelligent woman; a compassionate
human being; a resilient, courageous survivor; and, ultimately, a force
that solves a decade-old murder and brings the culprits to justice.
She learns the solid truth behind a guru’s statement that “A
tree may be bent by harsh winds … but it is no less beautiful than the
tree that grows in a sheltered nook, and often it bears the richer
Amelia’s self-discovery is every bit as
intriguing as the mystery she probes.
Her growing self-confidence, her intelligence, compassion, and
growing love affair with Joe are skillfully portrayed, putting together
the pieces of the puzzle that is her own being, just as every piece of
the murder puzzle slowly and deliberately falls into place.
Gilman has constructed an excellent character-oriented mystery, a
rewarding book that is well-worth reading – and re-reading.
Just in case you may be getting the idea that everything in this book is grim and serious, I would like to show that it has more than its share of light moments to relieve the darkness of Hannah’s fate and Amelia’s background. At the heart of the book is a beautiful love story, that of Amelia and Joe, and one of my favorite parts is their ‘first time’:
“I looked at him, startled, then – flippantly, gratefully – I leaned over and kissed him, except that when our lips met our arms somehow curved instantly, greedily, around each other, and suddenly there was nothing of gratitude in the strange, wild heat that rose in me. I gasped, “Joe—“
“He said questioningly, almost desperately, “Amelia –“, and a moment later we were inside my sleeping bag, our clothes strewn across the floor and I was learning for the first time the new and exotic language of the body and there was nothing sacrificial about me at all.
“Thus, I was deflowered, as the Victorians would say. Delightfully, lustily, willingly, and with much pleasure, in a black van with portholes in Carleton, Maine. No Aztec maiden, I.”
Ah, if only I could write scenes like that!
It’s romantic and amusing at the same time, very true to the
characters, very real, and it works easily into the story.
In the end, “The Tightrope Walker” has an
exciting and satisfying resolution, the key not only to a successful
mystery, but to a successful romance as well.
In my opinion, this book succeeds on every level, and I hope I
have inspired some of you to give it a try.
Quotes and plot-points from Amelia’s favorite book are used to good effect throughout “The Tightrope Walker”. Now, there wasn’t a book called “The Maze in the Heart of the Castle” in real life – until a few years after the publication of “Tightrope Walker”, when Dorothy Gilman did actually write and publish it. It is a very pleasant fantasy, for both adults and younger readers, and I can recommend it almost as much as I recommend “Tightrope Walker”. It is not necessary, however, for you to read one in order to understand or appreciate the other. They stand alone perfectly well.
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