Wednesday, February 23, 2011

If Walls Could Talk by Juliet Blackwell

After her divorce and her mother's death, Melanie Turner, known as Mel, took over the family construction business from her father. Now she's restoring historic homes in San Francisco. But when she agrees to help a friend restore a supposedly haunted house, practically the first thing that happens is a murder. The problem is, the police and even OSHA seem to think the murder was either an accident or a power-tool assisted suicide, which Mel knows can't be the case. Then she finds a box full of old documents hidden in the walls, documents that could shed light on a hundred-year-old mystery as well as a modern one. Oh, and Mel keeps seeing the ghost of the murdered man.

This is a great set-up for a mystery. Unfortunately, the book just isn't all that great. All the right ingredients are in there, but the soup is not a success.

There's way too much exposition, to start with. Mel seems obsessed with her ex-husband and her miserable life with him, because she brings it up constantly--and not just a line here and there, but whole paragraphs or even multiple paragraphs at a time. I wouldn't necessarily even mind that if she was working past it, but she's not. There is a romance with an old friend turned OSHA inspector, but that doesn't actually kick in until late in the book.

For that matter, the book doesn't kick in until halfway through the book. The murder happens soon, but it felt like Mel's impromptu investigation took forever to get underway. And Mel seems curiously unconcerned about things normal people would freak out over, like someone breaking into her father's workroom and torching it, and someone smashing a window out of her car to search it, and her reliable foreman disappearing and not answering his phone.... Even toward the end, when Mel's threatened by a suspect and is tied up and locked up, once she escapes she fails to call the cops and doesn't even seem all that upset.

Mel is blandly pleasant, but I never found her compelling enough to hang a series on. Even though the ghost turns up early, Mel spends more than half the book doubting her sanity about him, which is tiresome. I also found most of the other characters unlikeable, especially the male characters (although Mel's best friend is also annoying). The men are almost universally misogynists of various stripes--even the ones we're supposed to like, including Mel's dad and her love interest. I couldn't warm up to anyone.

The mystery itself is interesting, but the clues are laid out in such a haphazard way--Mel finds most of her information by accident--and the trail she follows is so lifeless that I never got caught up in the puzzle. There are tons of red herrings and dead-ends, but nothing felt at stake and nothing felt at all realistic. The lack of police investigation in the murder didn't make any sense; Mel's failure to call the police even when quite serious things occurred made the whole book seem like it was set in an alternate reality, one where San Francisco has only one cop, and he might be crooked. It was frankly bizarre.

I can't say I actually disliked the book, though. It just wasn't very good.

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