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The mysteries of home repair and homicide

Novelist blends two genres.

Most of us would be happy to get through an epic home renovation with a shred of sanity and a scrap of savings left. But for Sarah Graves, restoring a 19th-century sea captain's house in Maine has yielded a bigger bonus: a thriving career as a mystery writer.

Inspired by her experiences as a novice do-it-yourself home renovator, Graves' "Home Repair Is Homicide" series features amateur sleuth Jacobia "Jake" Tiptree, a former Wall Street money manager who takes the same blithe approach to gutting a bathroom as she does to sniffing out a murderer.

Her 11th novel, The Book of Old Houses (Bantam, $22), hit stores last week. Just out in paperback is the 10th book in the series, Trap Door (Bantam, $6.99), in which Jake - who is restoring a 19th-century Maine house just like her creator's - repairs a refrigerator, attends to some deteriorating clapboard, builds a small boat dock, hides an old friend from a mob hit man, and, of course, solves a murder.

Like most of Jake's forays into carpentry and home repair, the dock-building episode comes straight out of Graves' life. "My husband and I built one, and we are so proud of it," the writer says in a phone interview from Eastport, the picturesque seaport where she lives and sets her mysteries.

So detailed, in fact, are her descriptions of fixing plumbing leaks, patching plaster walls, and refurbishing old wooden windows, you could use them as how-tos. Also sprinkled throughout the mysteries - whose punning titles include Mallets Aforethought, Unhinged, and Tool & Die - are tip boxes on such subjects as assembling a basic tool kit and the wisdom of predrilling holes for wood screws.

Graves is a pen name; the author's real name is Mary Squibb. She got the idea for the series a decade ago, soon after she and husband John Squibb moved from the suburbs of New Haven, Conn., to Maine in search of a new life.

She was a respiratory therapist with a sideline as a freelance copywriter and a couple of published mysteries that had found few readers. He was a musician who wanted studio space to make guitars. Also high on their wish list: sea air, less congestion, and cheap real estate. Remote Eastport, a three-hour drive from Bangor on two-lane roads, fit the bill.

Formerly the owner of a "very, very small ranch house," Graves says she wasn't looking for the kind of massive project her 1823-vintage, three-story-plus-attic, seven-bedroom house has turned out to be.

"But this is the house we fell in love with," she says. "It's a classic, unspoiled, historically accurate beauty of a thing. It's a lovely old object, like an old wooden boat."

The house had pocket doors and multiple mantels, along with ornate tin ceilings, oak and white maple floors, and intricately turned spindles lining the central staircase. But the windows were so drafty, the couple had to staple on plastic sheeting to keep out icy winds. An ell (now her husband's studio) that had been built onto the house needed to be shored up from below, and leaking ceilings led to deteriorating walls.

"We've been doing one room a year since we got here 10 years ago," says Graves, who has painted the dining room walls a reddish-brown color she calls "dark toast," and the parlor an "intense" blue green she's on the fence about. "It's not exactly what we were hoping for," she says.

The house is furnished sparely with mostly bargain-priced antique-store and flea-market finds, including a mahogany dining table and six upholstered chairs Graves got for $500. "They look like they have been there forever," she says.

"We're not much for going out and furnishing a room all at once. We tend to pick up things one at a time, and they end up working," Graves says. "But I still haven't found a good headboard for the guest room. I've been looking for 10 years."

She laughs. "It will show up. No rush."

Among her biggest renovation challenges has been stripping the walls of as many as six layers of old wallpaper - something that Jake, her narrator, likens in Trap Door to revealing the growth rings in a tree trunk. Old wallpaper "marks growth periods," Jake muses, "because people only redecorate when they have money."

"The older the wallpaper gets, the darker and more richly colored [the layers] are," says Graves, who has turned up everything from a gold medallion pattern ("very busy") to one picturing lavender ladies that she dates to the 1960s. "Sometimes, when you are standing there scraping it off, you think, 'Once upon a time, someone was standing here thinking how beautiful it looked.' "

(Her preferred stripping method: Score the wallpaper, use a spray bottle to soak it with water, iron with a steam iron, then scrape.)

She writes a mystery a year, laboring at her computer mostly in winter, and counts restoring old wooden windows as her favorite home-repair project.

With 48 of them in the house, most of them 6 feet tall, in need of scraping, painting and reglazing, it's a task she's become expert at and one she calls "repetitive and relaxing."

Though Jake Tiptree's home-repair projects frequently stray into disaster - something Graves mines for comic effect in the books - the writer's own efforts have been far less dramatic. She has made some mistakes, though.

Her biggest: the salvaged exterior wood shutters she and her husband spent countless hours repairing and painting. Once up on the house, they looked all wrong, and down they came.

"The Federal style is plain," Graves says. "The house looked cleaner and simpler without the shutters."

Still to go on the renovation list is the kitchen, a big sunny room with pine wainscoting and wood floors.

"It's nice in a way you don't really want to spoil," Graves says. "You don't want to make it into a kitchen that looks like it came out of a magazine."

Then there are the second-floor bathroom and the last of the bedrooms.

"There is kind of a whole wall falling down in there," she says. "That will be a big project."

One, no doubt, we'll be reading about in the next book.