Sarah Graves’ most recent thriller in her Home Repair is Homicide series will have you turning pages, as you race toward this mystery’s surprising conclusion.

“Crawl Space” departs from Graves’ previous mysteries in its heightened graphic description. Outlaw characters in this book are more fiendish and scary. The suffering they inflict upon victims is intense – beginning with the book’s very first paragraph.

“Now that it was too late, she knew how wrong she had been,” Graves writes. “Watching her own hand slide wetly across the kitchen counter top, her fingers … slipping off in a slick of her own blood, she understood at last.”

In common with other Graves books, the lead character in “Crawl Space” is a tough though compassionate detective named Jacobia “Jake” Tiptree. Jacobia is a former New York investment adviser who moved to a hulking fixer-upper house in Eastport. Though her passion is house repair, Jacobia’s brilliance as an amateur sleuth propels her into crime investigation.

The setting of “Crawl Space” is gloomy November in Tiptree’s adopted town. An unsolved murder of two millionaire women called the Dodd sisters hangs over Eastport. Citizens try to forget this unfortunate happening, but it’s all revived when true-crime writer Carolyn Rathbone comes to Eastport with her unhappy sidekick named Chip.

Like Tiptree, Chip and Carolyn hail from New York City. They believe the Dodd sisters were dispatched by husbands Roger and Randy, even though brother Randy has the perfect alibi – he’s supposedly dead. But the crime writers don’t believe it, and they’re in Eastport to research what they’re sure will be a moneymaking true-crime thriller.

Meanwhile, Tiptree is getting anonymous death threats by phone.

Graves – whose novel cleverly mixes humor and horror – writes about the threats from Jake’s viewpoint: “When she (Jake) first came to Maine ten years earlier, a telephoned death threat would’ve unnerved her. But nowadays she reserved her anxiety for true emergencies.”

“Crawl Space” contains a lot of other good description that adds to the book’s punch.

Chip, whose dislike of his writing partner grows intense, muses about Carolyn Rathbone’s revealing eyes.

“He wondered,” Graves writes, “if her legions of devoted fans ever noticed that they looked like ice chips, shaped and polished to resemble human eyes.”

Then there’s Tiptree’s comic reference to her former New York husband, “a brilliant neurosurgeon… so chronically unfaithful that his nickname around the hospital where he worked was Vlad the Impaler…”

For interesting description of truly slimy characters, Graves rates an A-plus. Randy Dodd, the man at first thought to have died in the ocean when a lobster trap rope snarled around his hand, reappears as a Frankenstein-like monster. It’s the result of a botched operation intended to disguise his face.

“… A grim smile curved Randy’s mishapen lips,” writes Graves. “They resembled the fake wax lips Chip had gotten as a kid around Halloween, too big and red, as if they were already melting a little on the inside.”

If there’s a fault with Graves’ novel, it’s the repeat occurrence of improbable happenings. In one scene, a man with a bullet wound left to die in a steep-sided pit alerts rescuers by setting fire to a pine tree next to the hole where he’s trapped. He does his Houdini-like trick with a found rope, pulley and matches. The tree ignites when the wounded man uses his body as a counter-weight to propel burning tinder out of the pit.

Still, no one ever said a mystery has to be realism. Consider Edgar Allen Poe.

In true life, Sarah Graves lives with her husband in a Federal-style Eastport house that appears fictionalized in her books. A productive writer, she’s at work on her 14th mystery.

“Crawl Space” is a compelling book. I read late into the night to reach its unexpected ending.

 

Lloyd Ferriss is a freelance writer and photographer who lives in Richmond.