Knockdown: A Home Repair Is Homicide Mystery
As always, Jacobia "Jake" Tiptree is deep in a repair project on her enormous old Eastport, Maine house. This time, she is scraping paint off her front porch in preparation for painting it. Although absorbed in her work, she can't help noticing a young man on a bike who keeps pedaling by. This guy rides slowly by Jake's home and glares at her as if she's disgusting. There's something almost accusing in his attitude. The weirdest thing is that Jake nearly recalls seeing the identical expression on his face somewhere before, but she can't quite put her finger on it.
Jake dismisses her feelings of unease. After all, the island is gearing up for its big Fourth of July celebration and is filled with tourists of all kinds. She probably has actually seen this mysterious bicyclist in town, and that's why he seems so familiar. She returns her attention to her three-story 1823 Federal clapboard home, complete with 48 windows. Jake has worked constantly to return the formerly dilapidated house to its long-ago glory. The work never ends, but she finds redemption in repairing the place. She feels the need to compensate for her own questionable past. Long ago, when she lived in Manhattan and was the wife of a wealthy, philandering surgeon, she gave financial counseling to many clients, some of whom she knew were criminals.
Jake isn't the only person looking for redemption. The perplexing bicyclist is someone from her past. Steven Garner once visited Jake in her financial services office, 12 years before the day he began riding past her house on his rented bike. He was just a boy at the time; his father, Steven Garner Senior, was the person seeking Jake's help. The elder Steven was a school photographer with an expensive addiction: gambling. During his visit to her office, he told Jake that he needed $50,000 immediately to pay his debts. If she didn't fork it over, he would be killed. As he made his plea, his son stared at Jake with eyes that weren't really innocent, despite his young age. Jake refused to loan the boy's father money, but when he told her he was hoping to take his son to a ball game and out for lunch, she gave him $500. As the Garners left, Jake expected she would never see them again.
Now, as Jake applies her energy to her porch, the bicyclist rides by yet again, this time ringing his bike bell loudly and then pedaling away. Once again she searches her memory, trying to remember where she's seen him and once again fails. Finally he returns and speaks to her, unpleasantly. When Jake asks him to leave, he just says, "…not everyone gets what they want in this world." When she threatens to call the police, he laughs. Then he says he knows what she did, quoting ominously, "Murder will out."
The encounter shakes Jake. Her best friend Ellie suggests he's just a nut who bothers everyone he meets, but she's still not comforted. As the reader is privy to young Steven's memories and plans, we know that Jake has good reason to fear for her life. Steven escalates his threatening actions, but even as he is stalking and toying with Jake, she is figuring out how to attempt her own cat-and-mouse game. Unfortunately, police chief Bob Arnold is overwhelmed with the island's holiday celebration and with a recent murder. He is also a bit underwhelmed by the evidence Jake presents to him. He and his meager police force can't really help Jake, beyond watching for the suspect.
This is another solid and enjoyable entry in the always excellent A Home Repair Is Homicide series. Author Sarah Graves layers the plot with shades of gray, due to the considerable characterization of young Steven Garner, making him more than a cardboard cutout villain. She also plumbs Jake's guilty understanding that she may not be entirely innocent, to good effect. As always, the setting, house and cast of characters are three-dimensional and endearing. (I yearn to visit Eastport, do a few home repair projects alongside Jake and Ellie, and then devour a heaping plate of Bella's fish hash!)
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon (firstname.lastname@example.org) on May 16, 2011