“Plaster and Poison” is the third book by Jennie Bentley in a series the author tags as “Do-It-Yourself Home Renovation Mysteries.”

Her book is set in Down East Maine, where heroine Avery Baker brings murderers to justice while fixing up an old house.

If you’re a dedicated Maine mystery reader who finds the above familiar-sounding but a little off, you’re on the right track.

Longtime Eastport writer Sarah Graves has written 13 mysteries in her “Home Repair is Homicide” series. That series’ heroine is a hammer-handy amateur sleuth named Jacobia “Jake” Tiptree.

At first glance, “Plaster and Poison” appears to be Bentley’s shot across the bow into Graves’ staked-out territory. That may be the case, because similarities abound. Bentley’s Avery Baker has an iron-nerved, kindly boyfriend as back-up. Jacobia has a husband with the same role and personality.

Graves weaves into her mysteries tidbits of advice on keeping up old houses. Bentley has an appendix to her book titled “Home Renovation and Design Tips.” Included are directions for making fabric flowers and “Creating a Romantic Gustavian/Rococo Headboard.”

But there’s a big difference between books by the two mystery writers. Graves writes with wit and finesse. Bentley lacks her talent. Some Bentley paragraphs are so filled with cliches that they could be enshrined in a what-not-to-do handout for Freshman English 101.

Note the following paragraph in which main character Avery praises her mother for accurately sizing up a former boyfriend:

“She’d hit the nail squarely on the head, as it turned out. He wasn’t trustworthy. But since he was history, that was all water under the bridge at this point.”

To Bentley’s credit, Avery is an original character. She’s tough-talking, savvy about decor, more than a little compassionate — and very catty when it comes to describing her boyfriend’s former wife.

“Melissa James brings out the worst in me She’s always dressed to the nines,” Bentley quotes Avery as saying. “I gritted my teeth, wishing I wasn’t wearing jeans and a fuzzy turtleneck, and that I was taller and my hair wasn’t so frizzy and that I had bigger (breasts) and longer legs.”

“Plaster and Poison” begins in early winter, when sweethearts Kate McGillicutty and Police Chief Wayne Rasmussen — two characters in the fictitious coastal village of Waterfield — hire Avery and Derek to fix up a carriage house where Chief Wayne and Kate intend to live after their marriage.

As they tear out plaster and expose the guts of the place, Avery and Derek find the initials W-E and E-R carved in a timber next to a heart. Avery traces the initials to a couple of long-dead lovers, one of whom was poisoned by strychnine shortly before he was scheduled to go overseas to fight in World War I. The fate of the lovers becomes a subplot in the novel.

The primary plot is set in motion early on when Avery and Derek find a body on the top floor of the old carriage house. Derek suspects poisoning.

In some ways, “Plaster and Poison” reads like a family saga. Avery’s mother enters the novel with husband number two. Other family players include Derek’s physician father and his second wife. The couples get along famously and, like the younger set, work to put bad guys behind bars.

Jennie Bentley, listed as author of “Plaster and Poison” and two earlier mysteries, is a pseudonym for Bente Gallagher, a writer born in Norway who immigrated to New York City. Bentley now lives in Nashville with her husband and two children. She’s published mysteries using her real name, in addition to the Jennie Bentley series.

Like other Bentley mysteries, “Plaster and Poison” belongs to the cozy genre, a term used to describe mysteries without bloody or graphic scenes. I found the book a tedious read, and don’t recommend it.

 

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