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by Sarah Graves

Bantam, 1999, 291 pp. $5.50

Reviewed by J. Ashley

Jacobia Tiptree abandons stock-broking in Manhattan and her neurotic neurosurgeon husband to restore an old house and raise her troubled teenage son in Eastport, Maine. In this adventure, Jacobia and her neighbor/friend, Ellie, discover the body of Kenny, the town drunk, washed up on an idyllic Maine beach.

Ellie has a soft spot for the murdered man, having dated him before her marriage to her handyman husband, and vows to avenge him. Soon, the man's father, Tim, is found dead in his storage shed. Bags of dog food for Tim's twenty stray dogs turn out to hold cash, thousands of dollars of it. Next, eighteen-year-old Hallie, who runs away from home to keep house for Kenny, turns up strangled in a bait bin. Quiet Eastport is suddenly riddled with muggings, murders, and fear.

Jacobia and Ellie have their hands full trying to puzzle out the murderer as well as prepare the town for the visit of Felicity Abbott-Jones, who, if she finds Eastport quaint and authentic enough, might just influence some grant money Eastport's way. On top of this, Jacobia's ex-husband comes to stay, and Jacobia is torn between having it out with him and protecting her dyslexic son from his father's high expectations.

I had a mixed reaction to this book, because it contains both things wonderful and things just so-so. On the good side--it's refreshing to find a sleuth/heroine who is smart and capable and doesn't turn into jelly without her husband. Many newly divorced heriones find themselves unable to cope--Jacobia doesn't slow down a notch. And, she doesn't mindlessly ignore obvious clues and doesn't (thank you!) suddenly suspect her new boyfriend of being the killer without any justification whatever. Refreshing!

Second, the plot was well thought out and satisfying. Graves writes realistically, yet with enough zest to be entertaining. Most characters are three-dimensional: Jacobia, her son Sam, and even the crazy ex-husband become real people, not stock caricatures.

The drawbacks: While some of the characters are 3-D, others are flat. The abusive husband; the perfect best friend; the nerdy kid with serial-killer mentality; the troubled girl on drugs; the former stock-broker sent to prison for fraud; the police officer determined to keep his town clean.

Also, while the plot was for the most part, satisfying, Graves throws so many things into it that after a while, you start wondering why they are there. Perhaps she's trying to cloud what's really going on, but there's so much stuffed into this story that you forget what the last thing was until it's shoved at you again. We have smuggling, fraud, the mob, a haunted house, drugs, llamas, troubled teens, a vindictive ex-husband, house restoration, and more.

Graves constantly breaks up the action and dialogue by descriptions of the Maine countryside. Beautiful, yes, and inspires me to travel there, but it slowed down the story and it took me considerably longer getting through this book than a 300-page paperback warrents. Last, I'm not overly fond of small-town cozies, in which tiny hamlets have a higher homicide rate than my crime-ridden metropolitan neighborhood. The dark-secrets-behind-the-picturesque-small-town theme is getting rather old.

That said, TRIPLE WITCH is among the best small-town cozies I've sampled. Except for a few unrealistic coincidences, Graves's townspeople and heroine make it good reading, even for cozy-avoiders.

TRIPLE WITCH is the second in the series, though it can be read as a stand-alone with no problem at all. The first story is THE DEAD CAT BOUNCE; next in the series is WICKED FIX (April 2000).

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