The Carriage House
If you want to make homemade jelly, it takes something more than fruit and sugar. If you don’t have pectin, it won’t jell. The Carriage House lacked pectin. It had some good elements – the setting and two mysteries past and present, but the characters never engaged my sympathy and the story was muddled – all in all – it never jelled.
Ike Grantham is an eccentric and charismatic Boston social figure who gives Tess Haviland, a graphic designer, an antique carriage house in payment for some work she did for the Beacon Historic Project of which he is a member. Tess waits for a longish period of time before she actually goes to the house, but when she gets the property tax bill she figures it’s time to check it out. In the meantime, Ike has disappeared – Tess knows he is an impulsive creature so she doesn’t worry.
The carriage house is beautiful but needs lots of renovation. While she is checking out how much work this is going to involve, Tess meets her neighbors. There’s Andrew Thorne (an architect), his six year old daughter Dolly, and Andrew’s cousin Harl (an ex-Vietnam vet, ex-cop, and current furniture re-finisher). Andrew is the descendant of Jed Thorne, whose ghost is rumored to haunt the carriage house.
One night while looking for Dolly’s pregnant cat Tippy Tails, Tess finds a human skeleton in the cellar. It is a dark and stormy night and Tess is confused and dithering. Did she really see the skeleton? Was it a ghost? Could it be the skeleton of the long-dead Jed Thorne? Or maybe Ike Grantham, who still hasn’t shown up? By the time Tess gets around to calling the police, the skeleton has disappeared!
If you are anticipating a good Gothic/mystery story, you will be sorely disappointed. The plot sort of spins in place like a car stuck in the snow and it doesn’t go anywhere for long stretches. As for the characters – they are bland and prone to do inexplicable things. I mean, can you see an adult, professional (and sober) young woman start a fight in a bar out of pique? Tess does. Andrew Thorne is a complete and utter blank. He is described, but I’ll be hanged if I can tell you what he looks like. As for attraction between him and Tess – I suppose it’s there, but I never felt it at all. And as for Dolly, she alternated between being a cute little girl and being precociously annoying with emphasis on the latter.
One of the main story elements in The Carriage House is one I have enjoyed in other books – the attempt to solve the current mystery (the skeleton in the basement) and an historical mystery (the fate of Jed Thorne). Sharyn McCrumb has done this interweaving of past and present masterfully in her mystery novel The Ballad of Frankie Silver. Michelle Jerrot has also used this interweaving of past and present in her romance All Night Long. Both of these books handle that element of the plot much more deftly than The Carriage House and they have more interesting characters as well.
I wish I had liked The Carriage House more. As I said, it had many elements I have thoroughly enjoyed in other books, but the bland, boring characters and muddy storyline did not make for a satisfying read for me.