Bantam Books, 2010
Hardcover, 288 pages, $25 U.S., $29.95 Canada

Sarah Graves’s new claustrophobic thriller

If Crawlspace, the title of Sarah Graves’s newest murder mystery evokes claustrophobia in readers, the perils-gravel pit, ancient tunnel, car trunk-that the novel’s main characters find themselves in will definitely reinforce it.

Chief among these characters, of course, is Eastport’s now famous amateur detective, Jacobia Tiptree.

Hallmarks of Graves’s tales are that nothing is ever as it seems at first and that the reader doesn’t have to turn many pages before encountering a murder. That definitely continues to be true in Crawlspace. And for good measure a kidnapping follows soon after.

The 13th in her “Home Repair Is Homicide” series, Graves has again written a well-paced and beautifully crafted page-turner-not to mention nail-biter.

And the ending is a doozy!

Those reading Graves for the first time should know that Tiptree is a former Manhattan money-manager for some interesting clients, not all of whom are the up-and-up. Now in Eastport married to a harbor pilot and is raising a son from her first marriage. She’s also restoring an early 19th-cerntury house, a seemingly endless task but one that somehow leaves her time for sleuthing.

Readers of Graves’s earlier 12 books will recognize some familiar faces, including Tiptree’s father, Jacob, son, Sam, and the redoubtable police chief, Bob Arnold, and there are also some new ones, not all of whom are on the up-and up, either.

Among the newcomers are two visitors from Manhattan, a best-selling author who has made her fame and fortune chronicling gory murders and her under-valued researcher, assistant and errand-boy.

There are also some departures from past adventures. One is that Tiptree’s housekeeper, Bella Diamond, has married Jacobia’s father. And Bella replaces Ellie White as Tiptree’s sleuthing partner.
From time to time Graves offers us culinary asides. She describes Bella Diamond preparing a truly Downeast meal as follows:

“Still, right now there was work to be done. Turning to it with relief, she peered into a box where a whole pollock, split and cleaned, lay in a bed of rock salt. Its preparation, at which Bella was an expert, was a legacy from early Eastport, at a time when refrigeration was unknown and ice a luxury.

“Once the large white-fleshed fish had absorbed all the salt it could-Bella knew just by looking at it when it was right-it would be hung out on the clothesline with two clothespins, to dry until it had a texture somewhere between leather and cardboard, at which point it could be stored for the winter.

“Later it would be used to make dried-fish dinner with boiled potatoes and fried pork scraps. Bella smiled, anticipating this; her new husband, Jacob Tiptree, like hearty fare, plain cooking and plenty of it.”
Graves just mentions the fact that if there are any leftovers-and that’s rare-they can be used to make fishcakes that will make your brains fall out.
But Graves adds that Bella hadn’t yet served Jacob “what the old guard in Eastport still called huff-and-puff-potatoes and turnips mashed together with bacon fat-but sooner or later she was going to get her nerve up, she resolved, and do it.”
Bella also gets her nerve up to help Jacobia, and she proves to be an indomitable ally.

Graves also offers a series of home-repair helpful hints called “Tiptree’s Tips.” One of these tips states: “Home-ly. All old houses have age-related imperfections, so remember: it’s not a flaw-it’s a feature.” After all these years I’m relieved to discover that I live in a house with so many features.
Crawlspace is scheduled to be in bookstores by December 29.
Bob Gustafson is a semi-retired veteran reporter who lives and works in Eastport.