"Mix a cozy mystery together with supernatural elements and romance for an amazing book!"
Reviewed by Lynn Cunningham
Posted March 11, 2011
Melanie Turner may well be one of the most exciting, smart,
and funny heroines currently in any books series. Mel, as
she's called, runs Turner Construction, a company that
specializes in remodeling and restoring historic houses in
the San Francisco area. She has just partnered with a
friend, Matt Addax, to remodel some homes and flip them.
Matt is an aging singer and uses his celebrity status to get
high society people interested in buying these remodeled homes.
The morning after a "Do It Yourself Remodeling Party," Mel
shows up to find Matt passed out on a couch amid an
unbelievable mess inside the latest house they're trying to
fix up. Apparently, this party got out of hand and went on
for hours into the night and early morning with plenty of
drinking. No one is left on the premises except Matt, though.
When he comes to, he and Mel look over the house to see what
other damage was done only to have the bloody image of
another colleague appear before them. Kenneth Kostow had
been shot many times with a nail gun and is missing a hand.
He's so out of his mind from pain and blood loss that he
can't really tell them anything. He later dies at the
hospital, but that doesn't stop him from appearing to Mel.
It seems that she can see and communicate with dead people,
much to her chagrin.
Kenneth wants Mel to try to help him solve his murder but he
can't remember anything important that happened just before
his death. After a few odd break-ins surrounding everywhere
Mel goes, she starts to realize that Kenneth's death was
definitely a murder. On top of her having to investigate the
murder of a ghost, a heartthrob from years ago re-enters her
life. Graham Donovan is still just as hot as he ever was and
he's making Mel's heart do funny flip flops.
Is Mel going to solve the murder of Kenneth? Will she and
Graham finally get together? The journey on the way to these
answers is well worth the trip.
Juliet Blackwell has a wonderful new series in the Haunted
Homes Renovation Mystery books. This was a quick read mainly
because I just had to keep going to find out what was
going to happen next. There's enough excitement to keep you
reading until late in the night.
Melanie Turner has made quite a name for herself
remodeling historic houses in the San Francisco Bay Area.
But now her reputation may be on the line.
At her newest project, a run-down Pacific Heights mansion,
Mel is visited by the ghost of a colleague who recently
met a bad end with power tools. Mel hopes that by nailing
the killer, she can rid herself of the ghostly presence of
the murdered man-and not end up a construction casualty
ExcerptThis was one pitiful-looking mansion.
As I pushed open the heavy front door, an empty beer can
rolled across the dusty oak floor, its metallic rattle
echoing off bashed-in walls and broken bookcases. More
cans, wine bottles, and an impressive assortment of power
tools lay strewn about the floor, spoiling the once-shiny
black lacquer of the grand piano and littering the
graceful sweep of the circular stair leading off the
octagonal foyer. A damp, salty bay breeze blew in through
a broken casement window. I tried clicking on the overhead
chandelier to shed some light on the dim interior, but
either the fuse had blown or the electricity had been cut.
My former client lay sprawled on a worn black leather
couch, a gash between his eyebrows still oozing blood.
I had warned him.
Long, freckled fingers gripped a half-empty bottle of a
local favorite: passion fruit-infused Hangar One vodka,
brewed in an abandoned Navy airplane hangar just on the
other side of the San Francisco Bay. At least the fool had
taste, if no sense.
I pried the bottle from his hand.
With a snort, Matt Addax opened bright blue, red-rimmed
"Wha...Mel? What're you doin' here?" He asked in a British-
"Your son called me," I said. "He was afraid that last
night's 'Do It Yourself' remodeling party might have
gotten out of hand."
"The lad's wise beyond his years."
"Mmm." I kicked at a stray piece of old molding, laying
rusty-nail-side up, with the steel toe of my work
boot. "What happened to your face?"
He sat up and raised a hand to probe the cut between his
eyes. "Ah, bloody hell, I've got a photo shoot tomorrow. A
piece of wood snapped off -the stuff that they used to put
old plaster onto? What's that called?"
"Yeah. I was prying off some lath and it snapped and
beaned me. I loathe lath." He smiled. "Try saying that
five times fast."
"You promised me you'd wear safety glasses."
He shrugged, looked me up and down, and lifted his
eyebrows. "You always look like you're on the way to a
fancy-dress party. Don't the boys tease you?"
"Not if they want their paychecks signed, they don't."
Provided I wore the proper footwear -my ever-present work
boots—and knew my single-bevel miter saws from my random
orbital sanders, the construction workers in my employ
didn't much care how I dressed. Today I was wearing a
multi-colored spangled shift dress under a leather bomber
jacket I had borrowed from my dad's closet as a concession
to modesty and the weather. The carnival nature of the
dress was a little over the top for a woman just a couple
years shy of forty, and strangers on the street frequently
mistook me for a Madonna groupie, but after years of
wearing the "proper" faculty-wife wardrobe I had sworn
never to hold myself back. Besides, even in progressive
California people were so surprised to see a woman running
a construction company I figured the clothes gave us all
something tangible to fixate on.
I sank onto the sofa next to Matt, held my hand out for
the vodka, and took a little swig. It was barely noon, but
the havoc forty or so drunken amateurs had managed to
wreak on this formerly gorgeous, if down-at-the-heels,
Pacific Heights mansion was motivation enough for a quick
drink an hour or three before happy hour.
Matt leaned his elbows on his knees and cradled his
thinning, sandy-haired head in his broad musician's hands.
Looking over at him—and around at the once-elegant mansion
falling apart around us—I could feel my resolve melting
I had sworn I wouldn't get involved with Matt's scheme to
flip upscale houses, trading in on his celebrity and
social connections to market to an exclusive clientele.
But I liked Matt, and it wouldn't take that much for me to
help him out. After all, remodeling historic homes was my
Still, my relationship to the former rock star was tenuous
at best. My stepson Caleb—ex-stepson, actually—went to
school with Matt's son. Matt and I met a couple of years
ago over cupcakes at a Parents' Association meeting, and
then last year Matt hired me to remodel his kitchen in
Sausalito. A couple of months ago, as a special favor, I
had done a thorough inspection of this house before Matt
As far as I was concerned, that was the extent of our
relationship. But a lot of rich and famous people wind up
growing abnormally close to their contractors. We camp out
in their homes for weeks, sometimes months, at a time. We
have no particular stake in their wealth or celebrity—
though our rates might spike when we enter the poshest
neighborhoods. But aside from obvious budget
considerations, ripping the toilet out of a crumbling
Victorian in humble West Oakland is essentially the same
as ripping one out of the fanciest Pacific Heights Beaux
The very banality of this interaction can transform a good
general contractor into a client's trusted confidante.
There's nothing quite like a protracted remodel project to
devastate a marriage or threaten family harmony, and since
taking over my dad's construction business two years ago
I've mediated more than my fair share of domestic
disputes. I respond to panicky calls about leaky faucets
in the middle of the night and find myself hearing much
more than I want to know about unfaithful spouses, shady
corporate deals, or murky political alliances. I'm like a
confessor to some of these people.
Matt Addax, whose long-haired, blue-jean-jacketed, guitar-
playing image had adorned my bedroom wall in my teenage
years, was one of those people.
"Anybody else get hurt?" I asked.
"I don't remember much past the..." he held his hand up
toward the jagged shards of glass remaining in the smashed
window frame and trailed off with a defeated shake of his
head. "It seemed like a good idea at the time. Ya know
that remodel show on cable, where they do their own demo?"
Matt asked, his voice recovering its familiar upbeat
tone. "Like Kenneth said, it always seems like a blast. He
arranged to have a photog here from the Chronicle to
document the whole thing. He thought it'd make a brilliant
human interest story."
"Why am I not surprised that Kenneth was involved?"
"He means well."
I found that hard to believe. But as my mother used to
say, if you can't say something nice, change the subject.
"I'm pretty sure on TV they don't encourage participants
to drink while using power tools," I pointed out, passing
the bottle back to Max. "They also have professionals
"You're right. I'm an idiot. I should have hired you to
"You called and asked me to, remember? I refused, because
"Right. Now I remember."
"Besides, Kenneth doesn't like me."
"He just doesn't like your rates."
"Believe me, he doesn't like me."
And the feeling was mutual. Kenneth had acted as project
manager on Matt's kitchen renovation in Mill Valley, but
he kept insisting on cutting corners and fudging on little
things like code requirements. I had finally walked off
the job after an incident involving threatening words
concerning the creative use of a jackhammer.
"I give up on this place," Matt said with a defeated
sigh. "Will you fix it?"
"All of it. I'm tired of it. I don't care what Kenneth
says. Just take over the remodel. If you cut me a break on
your fees upfront, I can offer you a share of the sales
price. We should still be able to make some good money."
"You're one week into a remodel and you're already tired
of it? You might want to reconsider this house-flipping
"We made a killing on the last place."
"One lucky sale is no foundation for such a risky line of
"Kenneth got this place cheap, though. Because of the
I was afraid to ask. But I couldn't stop myself.
"You don't know about that? People say this place is
haunted. So we got it cheap."
"Previous owner had to disclose it in the sale."
"Let me get this straight: The owners have to tell you if
they think their house is haunted?"
He nodded. "Real estate law. It's part of full disclosure
and all that." His red-rimmed eyes scanned the disaster
area surrounding us. "Maybe it really is haunted. Maybe
that's what happened last night."
I held up the bottle of vodka. "This is what happened last
night. These are all the spirits you need to screw up a
"At least I followed your advice on one thing: I packed up
all the glass lampshades, a lot of the door and window
hardware, and anything else that looked valuable or
"You forgot the chandelier." I gestured toward the
obviously homemade monstrosity hanging in the entryway.
Colored rocks and murky crystals had been wrapped in
copper wire and hung limply amongst amber, flame-shaped
electric bulbs. I sort of admired the concept, but the
execution left a lot to be desired.
"With good reason," Matt snorted. "The former owner
considered himself an artist, it seems. There are a number
of his creations, here and there."
"I take it the mosaic in the bathroom was his handiwork?
And the homemade fireplace in the den?" I asked, recalling
the ugly rock-and-shell studded surround.
"Yup. And the funky garden walks, and the homemade pond.
Seems he owned his own cement mixer." Matt dug into the
pocket of his faded jeans and brought out a chain with two
keys, one small and one large. "The crate's in the garage.
Could you arrange for storage? It's padlocked—here's the
"What's the other key for?"
"The front door. Say you'll save me."
"It'll be a huge job if we do it right."
"I know that."
"Pricey." Just wanted to be clear.
"I'll make the money back in the long run. This is Pacific
Heights, after all. The sky's the limit....Listen, Mel, I
can't afford to look like an idiot with this one. I'm too
high-profile. I need to flip it, fast."
He looked grim. Matt Addax may have started his
professional life as a teenage rock god, but as is the
case with so many of us, advancing age brought with it
certain unavoidable insights. His big blue eyes and
adorable British accent only took him so far. For the past
several decades his music career had been in free-fall,
but during a stint in an exclusive rehab center up on the
Mendocino coast he had befriended an elite stratum of
socialites—the same place he met the well-connected
Soon Matt became an all-around San Francisco celebrity,
one of those people who didn't actually have to do
anything to be famous. Since he wasn't a skinny young
female who could achieve notoriety by forgetting her
underwear, he had to use other methods to distinguish
himself. House-flipping gave Matt a semi-artistic, cutting-
edge career: As he explained to me once, everyone loves
home design. And I had to hand it to Kostow—he and Matt
had done surprisingly well so far.
I looked around the living room, entry, and dining room
beyond. Yes, there was trash everywhere, holes in the
walls, cracked and peeling paint and varnish, and signs of
dry rot along some of the windows. But I knew from my
previous inspection that the all-important foundation was
solid, and the main wood supports were intact. And like
most historical structures, Matt's house had been built
with more care, skills, and finer materials that one would
find on any modern home.
Indeed, the bones of the place reflected the grace and
refinement of an era long past. Ceilings were high, with
peaked arches leading from one room to the next. Wide-
plank oak floors were dressed up with an inlaid Greek key
border design. The crown moldings were intact, boasting
intricate fleur de lis and acanthus leaves. The living
room fireplace mantel, crowded at the moment with plastic
cups and beer cans, was elaborately carved limestone
complete with spiral columns and frolicking putti.
I could practically feel the people who had once come to
this parlor for a cup of tea, hear the rattle of a
newspaper, smell the aroma of pipe smoke and the tinkle of
laughter through the years.
Who was I kidding? I had fallen under the house's spell
from the first moment I walked in to do the inspection two
months ago. The signs of its long neglect and recent abuse
hurt my heart. I was already itching to get at it.
"All things considered, the damage looks pretty
superficial," I said, patting Matt on the knee and giving
in to my inevitable impulse to save the place. "Nothing a
big fat check won't fix. As long as no one broke a water
pipe or compromised a load-bearing wall, you'll be okay."
Matt's bloodshot eyes fixed on me. "You're a peach, Mel. I
"Let's go survey the damage, shall we?"
First things first. Matt showed me the loaded crate in the
ground-floor garage and I made a quick call to my
transport and demo guy, Nico, asking him to rescue the
grand piano while he was at it. Half Italian and half
Samoan, Nico had a big strong truck and an endless supply
of similarly endowed nephews. Together, I felt confident
they could lift the entire house, much less a piano.
As Matt and I mounted the steps to the second floor, I bit
my tongue, trying to keep from commenting on the vodka. It
really wasn't any of my business.
I made it almost halfway up the flight of stairs.
"I thought you quit drinking."
"I'm in a new program. Booze isn't strictly forbidden, so
long as it's taken in moderation. Besides, my new neighbor
brought over a bottle of 18-year-old scotch. Old enough to
vote. What's a man to do?"
Sounded more like rationalization than science to me, but
who was I to say?
I had to smile as we stepped into the master bedroom. A
sheet of wallboard had been hung both crooked and
backwards. There were several nails placed, seemingly at
random, in one multi-paned window frame. And the piece de
resistance: a lacey red bra hung over a closet door.
If this was Matt's definition of moderation, I'd hate to
witness his version of overindulgence.
Stepping over an empty champagne bottle, my boot kicked
something that clinked and skittered across the floor. I
squatted and picked up a few of the small brass objects.
"Are those shells?" Matt asked. "Bloody hell."
"No, they're bullets. Thirty-eight caliber."
"What's the difference?"
"Shells are cartridge casings that are expelled upon
Matt looked bewildered.
"The shells hold the gunpowder," I explained. "They
separate from the slug upon firing. The slug's the part
that kills you. These bullets haven't been fired."
"You Americans and your guns. What's the deal?"
My father was an ex-marine who had grown up hunting in the
Adirondacks. His dismay at having sired a pack of three
girls was alleviated by taking us all to the firing range
when my mother wasn't looking. My sisters soon bowed out,
but I had tried my best to be my father's son and went so
far as taking a hunters' safety training course before I
realized there was no way I'd ever be able to shoot Bambi,
or any of his relations or other furry woodland friends.
Assessing the cold weight of the metal cartridges in the
palm of my hand, I felt a tingle at the base of my neck.
"What exactly went down here last night, Max?"
"I'm telling you, I don't remember. My ex walked in with
her new boy toy, and I started downing that great scotch.
I'll admit, I lost it."
"Who was invited to this shindig?"
"Everybody. The A list. Rory Abrams, the guy with that hot
new restaurant in North Beach? He catered the whole thing.
Everyone thought the whole Do-it-Yourself Demo idea was a
"Oh sure," I said, "brandishing Sawz-Alls and pneumatic
drills and handguns while downing tequila shooters is a
"It wasn't that bad. The photographer gave me the name of
a guy to handle security on the front door, and he brought
along a couple of friends to make sure things didn't get
out of hand."
"Sounds positively sedate. You guys trashed the place, cut
the lights, and someone had a gun?" My eyes scanned the
floor for more shells. "Tell me, Matt, what would 'getting
out of hand' look like?"
"Be kind to the man with a beastly hangover. Besides,
those bullets could have been here for years for all we
know. Maybe they were behind something, just got knocked
about in the hubbub."
"Was there anyone at the party that I'd know? Who was the
"A kid, Zachary something. He's new. Cute. Looks like a
young Antonio Banderas, except, ya know, not Spanish."
I crossed over to the crooked wallboard and peered into
the deep recess beyond. Because of the line of the eaves,
there was more than the standard six inches of space
behind the wall. A dark niche extended back several feet.
The perfect hiding place.
"Hey, Matt, I think I see something back in here."
Matt wrinkled his nose. "I hate that, when they open up
the walls. It smells funky."
"Are you serious? That's the fun part."
"It's the anthropologist in you coming out. The love of
digging up old bones. I'm telling you, it's bad juju."
"I was a cultural anthropologist, not an archeologist. I
dealt with live people. And anyway, I relinquished my
badge when I became a contractor, remember?"
"Once an anthropologist, always an anthropologist. You
guys are like musicians. You can't shake it."
He was more right than he knew.
To me, old houses might as well be ancient pyramids. They
hold secrets and messages from the past; I feel them
whispering to me as I walk the hallways. Walls, attics,
basements...over the past five years I had found
newspapers from the thirties, liquor bottles, old coins,
address books, even the occasional stash of money or
stocks. I once unearthed a button-up baby's shoe and a
dress pattern book from 1916. I even liked the smell: the
distinctive, musty aroma of history, reminding me of used
bookstores...promising the serendipitous discovery of the
perfect novel or family relic or beloved treasure.
I dug through my satchel for my key ring, on which hung a
mini-flashlight. Holding the light with my teeth, I
crouched, grabbed on to a stud with one hand for balance,
leaned in through the hole in the wall, and reached.
It was frustratingly close, but my arm wasn't quite long
enough. I stretched just a little more, managing to knock
at the item with my fingertips. Unfortunately, that just
pushed it further until it fell into a well between the
floor beams. I couldn't see anything anymore, even with
"Darn it!" I swore under my breath. "I almost had it..."
Behind me, Matt screamed.
© Juliet Blackwell, 2010
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