By Roberta


AUTHOR:  Dorothy Gilman
DATE:   1979, still in print
LENGTH: 186 pages in hardbound, available in paperback
GENRE:   mystery

“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 fruit.” 

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.



You can find a copy of "The Forgotten Beasts of Eld" at , your local book store or library

The above material is considered the property of Roberta.
If you wish to use this article, in part or whole, please contact her at for her permission.