There’s nothing quite like taking a small town where everybody knows everybody else’s business and throwing in a nasty little murder. Sarah Graves does just that, opening Wreck the Halls with the gruesome discovery of the local butcher’s body, neatly dismembered and wrapped in his own brown butcher paper. The obvious suspect, his long-abused wife, is caught, literally, red-handed.
Of course, if that were that, then there would be no mystery.
But once Jacobia (Jake) Tiptree and her sidekick Ellie get involved, convinced that the meek, good-hearted butcher’s wife could never have committed such a heinous crime, more than one nefarious secret is uncovered before we finally learn the murderer’s true identity. Wife abuse, stalking, blackmail and date rape; you name it, Wreck the Halls has got it. Jake is aided and abetted by her son, home for the holidays from college, her brand new husband, and her less than helpful ex-husband
(who followed her from New York and has the nasty habit of dropping by with unwanted advice, bits and pieces of junk and a favor to ask).
In Jacobia Tiptree, Graves has created the classically meddlesome amateur detective. As the book’s narrator, she is chatty, irreverent and gutsy. A transplanted New Yorker, she relies on Ellie, a native of Eastport, Maine, the book’s charming setting, to fill in the local details and gossipy background on potential suspects. But Jake, after four years (and five books) in Eastport, is learning the ways of a local. As she comments about one particularly heroic local character: “And that, as they say around here, is what separates the culls from the keepers.”
Graves has a wonderful rapport with both her characters and Eastport. America’s easternmost city, it lies less than half a mile from Canada’s Campobello Island, where FDR spent summers and where he contracted polio. Making the most of Wreck the Halls’ Christmas setting, Graves brings alive a once vibrant seaport that has fallen on tougher times. Her descriptions of once magnificent houses and businesses dressed in their holiday finery amid a sea of snow are lovely. And a sequence during Eastport’s winter festival where the local fishing boats, decorated as everything from Santa’s sled pulled by eight lobsters to a nativity scene with wise men dressed as sardines, is touchingly beautiful. By the middle of the book, however,
readers will be pretty clear on how cold, icy, foggy, sleety, snowy and just downright unbearably slippery the streets of Eastport can be. And while it was important to know, as
the intrepid detectives move in on their targets, that footprints might be left in the ever-present snow and cars and people were likely to slip and slide uncontrollably, I got it, already, I got it.
As the plot twists and turns and Jake jumps to conclusion after conclusion about suspect after suspect,
one begins to wonder about her detective skills. Of course, by barging in with both barrels firing, she and Ellie usually uncover another piece of evidence that inevitably leads us to the final showdown with the real killer.
Readers may be confused en route a couple of times, but they won't be disappointed with the final outcome. Graves is fair with her clues, not misleading the reader at any point, and I’ll admit to being not bright enough to figure things out in advance.
Wreck the Halls is billed as “A Home Repair is Homicide Mystery.” Other than Jake’s constantly-in-need-of-repair old house and the ever-lengthening hardware store shopping list she carries around in her head, there isn’t a whole lot of home repair going on. Maybe Jake’s other adventures have resembled Home Improvement meets Law and Order, but this one doesn’t measure up to the billing. Maybe Graves should drop the subtitle and concentrate on Jacobia, Ellie and her other wonderful characters.