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Linda Hilton

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Festive 16 Tasks -- Square #1 -- A book with Rose in the title. (But this one doesn't smell so sweet)

Rose Hill - Pamela Grandstaff

Disclosure: I acquired the Kindle edition of this book when it was offered free on Amazon.  I do not know the author nor have I ever communicated with her about this book or any other matter.  I am an author of adult fiction and general-interest non-fiction.

I read this book for the Festive 16 Tasks Bingo game, Square #1 – Calan Gaeaf:

Book themes for Calan Gaeaf:
Read any of your planned Halloween Bingo books that you didn’t end up reading after all, involving witches, hags, or various types of witchcraft –OR– read a book with ivy or roses on the cover, or a character’s name/title of book is/has Rose or Ivy in it.


Within the first few pages, I knew this wasn't going to be a five-star book, or even four-star. By the time I reached the end of the first chapter, it had dropped all the way down to two stars.  Eventually, I would slot it at 1.5 stars for BookLikes, and I have to say at this point that I have not read any other reviews of the book.  This is solely my impression after reading it cold the first time, then rereading to write this review.

Let's start with that first chapter.

Theo Eldridge is a louse.  The author projects that image of him very well.  He leaves his home (or whatever) in a yellow Hummer, and he is bent on revenge and hurting people.  He's drunk and gets kicked out of the local bar.  A few scenes later, Theo's companion Willy Neff drops Theo off back at the bar, with no mention of why they were in Willy's old pick-up and not the yellow Hummer.  Only later – after I've re-read the preceding dozen or so pages to figure out what I missed and in fact I didn't miss anything  – does the author drop in that oh, gee, Theo locked his keys in the Hummer.

This might not be such a big deal except for the fact that author Grandstaff provides a big Foreword in which she explains that this is the revised 10th Anniversary edition, cleaned up and fixed up for reissue.  Say what???

The rich guy is hanging around with the poor guy . . .  Why?  And why not provide some explanation on the spot that Theo had locked his keys in the Hummer?

Eyes are starting to roll.  Mine.

So then Theo gets murdered, and we start meeting the rest of the people in Rose Hill. . . . Where is Rose Hill?

Rose Hill is the town after which the book is titled.  It must be important.  Yet the author never tells us where it is.  West Virginia?  Colorado?  Texas?  South Dakota?  I have no idea.  

Believe it or not, this is important.  Readers want to be able to "live" where the characters live, and different areas of the country, of the world, conjure certain images.  And if they don't, then the author needs to write in a way that enables the reader to conjure the images the writer wants.  References to fracking, to environmental issues, to a small college in the town, to mountains and valleys are all nice, but they aren't enough.  They apply to the states I mentioned above, as well to others.  So where is "Rose Hill?"

Author Grandstaff never identifies the state or even the region explicitly.  The first clue comes on page 48 when Police Chief Scott Gordon opens Theo's mail and there are statements from a bank in Pittsburgh.  I missed that clue, however, because I was so stunned that virtually all of Theo's financial dealings were on display in one day's mail.  All his bank statements.  Contracts from a real estate deal.  Major legal threats to one of his most lucrative businesses.  And so on.  I just rolled my eyes again at how convenient – how contrived – that was.

Was it also bizarre that the police chief would be opening the deceased's mail without a lawyer present?  Or something like that?  Well, that crossed my mind, too.  And made my eyes roll again.

I didn't connect with the Pittsburgh thing until Chief Gordon goes to the city where Sean Fitzpatrick works to deliver some letters.  Sean's office overlooks the "three rivers," and it's only my baseball fandom that tied the scene to Pittsburgh.  I couldn't tell you what those rivers are, but I know the Pirates used to play at Three Rivers Stadium.

Later there would be a few more references to Pittsburgh, confirming more or less my suspicion that Rose Hill is in the mountains of western Pennsylvania.

It shouldn't have been that difficult!  And of course, wondering about it detracted from my immersion in the story.  

So by the time I finished the book, I had more or less confirmed the locale.  Great!

The story starts on "Saturday," and the rest of the chapters follow the days of the succeeding week.  But when is that Saturday?  Fall?  Winter?  Spring?  Summer?

On page 6, there's a reference to a "freak thaw" in January.  What does that mean, exactly?  What does it mean in terms of the location?  What preceded the thaw?  Lots of snow?  Lots of ice?  What the hell is the weather like?

This is all important, because there's a lot of driving up and down the mountain roads.  One of the main characters, Maggie Fitzpatrick – sister of the aforementioned Sean Fitzpatrick – drives a VW bug.  This is NOT the kind of vehicle that would routinely trek through heavy snow safely, especially on winding mountain roads.  How desperate would a character have to be to risk driving a light-weight passenger car through a blizzard on mountain roads?

Characters have to act logically within the framework the author builds for their personalities.  This can be as simple as mentioning that Theo Eldridge locked his keys in his Hummer because he was rich and used to being careless and on top of that he was drunk and angry, and then he had to bum a ride from loser Willy Neff which made him even angrier.  So if Maggie Fitzpatrick drives her VW bug in a mountain blizzard, she needs appropriate motivation for that kind of risky behavior.  Does she normally engage in risky behavior?  Or does she have a desperate, but unusual motivation for behaving out of character?

One of the problems with developing the characters is that author Grandstaff has so damn many of them.  Soooooooo many.  Way too many to keep track of in a novel this short.

Theo Eldridge is the rich boy creep murder victim.
Willy Neff is the loser who becomes Theo's companion
Patrick Fitzpatrick is the sometimes bartender at the Rose and Thorn.  Patrick is described as having a passion for anything Irish.
Maggie Fitzpatrick is Patrick's sister
Ed Harrison is the newspaper owner who discovers the body
Tommy is the 12-year-old who delivers Ed's papers and may have witnessed . . . something
Mandy Wilson works in the bar and she's Tommy's mother.  She also works in the bakery owned by Maggie Fitzpatrick's mother, Bonnie.
Scott Gordon is the chief of police
Sarah Albright is with the county sheriff's department, but I can't remember exactly what her job is.  She has the hots for Scott big time
Skip and Frank are the police deputies
Phyllis Davis is Tommy and Mandy Wilson's neighbor in the trailer park.  Phyllis works in the local diner
Billy is Phyllis's violent and worthless son
Pauline Davis is Phyllis's mother, I think, but I'm not sure.  Pauline also works at the diner.
Hannah Campbell is Maggie Fitzpatrick's cousin, but I don't remember exactly the genealogy.  Hannah is the local animal control officer and is into animal rescue big time.    
Sam Campbell is Hannah's war veteran husband.  He's a cyber security expert
Andrew "Drew" Rosen is the new veterinarian in town
Mitchell Webb is Maggie's employee at the bookstore-and-coffee-shop she owns.
Margie Estep is the postmistress.
Enid Estep is Margie's mother, disabled by rheumatoid arthritis.
Eric Estep was Margie's father and former fire chief of Rose Hill
Ava Fitzpatrick is Maggie's sister-in-law, married to Brian Fitzpatrick.  Ava has two children and runs a B&B.
Brian Fitzpatrick is Ava's husband and Maggie's brother.  He disappeared several years ago.
Sean Fitzpatrick is another of Maggie's brothers.  He is an investment banker (I think) in Pittsburgh.
George Bradley "Brad" Eldridge was Theo's younger brother.  Brad drowned when he was fifteen, supposedly as an accident but maybe murder and maybe suicide.
Gwyneth Eldridge is Theo's sister, a vicious snob who never gets anyone's name – or even the name of the town where she herself grew up – correct in spite of numerous corrections.
Caroline Eldridge is Theo's other sister, who is a perpetual do-gooder, currently in Paraguay on some kind of medical aid mission.
Gail Godwin was Theo's cleaning lady and maybe sort of housekeeper/cook.
Bonnie Fitzpatrick, Maggie's mother (and Sean's, and Brian's, and Patrick's), owns a bakery and is married to Fitz Fitzpatrick.
Alice Fitzpatrick, Hannah's mother, is married to Curtis Fitzpatrick, I think, but I not sure.
Sharon Gordon, Scott's ex-wife
Marcia Gordon, Scott's whiny, over-bearing merrily-martyred mother
Gladys Davis, Marlene Thompson, Alva Johnston are some of the "scanner grannies" who use their illegal police scanners to listen in on cell phone calls in Rose Hill and spread gossip.  Gladys Davis is apparently Pauline Davis's mother-in-law
Owen, the former veterinarian whose practice Drew Rosen purchased
Mamie Rodefeffer, wealthy elderly woman whose family used to own a local glassworks
Richard "Trick" Rodefeffer, local Realtor and descendant of Mamie, I think.
Sandy Rodefeffer, Trick's wife
Curtis Fitzpatrick, owner of local service station, brother of Ian and "Fitz" Fitzpatrick.
Ian Fitzpatrick, owner of the Rose and Thorn bar, I think
Delia Fitzpatrick, Ian's wife
Doc Machalvie, local physician
Knox Rodefeffer, another member of the glassworks family and current bank president and coin collector.  Trick's brother.
Courtenay, Knox's secretary
Tim MacGregor, Maggie's maternal grandfather, Bonnie's father.
King Fitz Fitzpatrick, Maggie's father
Anne-Marie Rodefeffer, Knox's pill-popping wife
Stuart Machalvie, local pharmacist and Doc's brother, also mayor of Rose Hill
Peg Machalvie, local funeral director, Stuart's wife, and alternating with him as mayor
Claire Fitzpatrick, Ian and Delia's daughter, Maggie's cousin
Matt Delvecchio, owner of local grocery store
Lily and Simon Crawford
Cal Fischer, firefighter and water rescue diver, and illegal deer hunter

(Stuart MacHalvie is big on his Scots heritage, as one of the "few" Scots in the area.  Someone with the name "Scott Gordon" would have to be one of them.  And there are comments later on about the Fitzpatricks being Scots, because Bonnie – mother of Brian, Sean, Patrick, and Maggie – is half Scots herself.)

These are most of the characters who have major parts to play in this short novel.  Believe it or not, I had to read the damn thing twice just to get these characters more or less straightened out.  The first time through, I couldn't even begin to follow the story half the time because I didn't know who anyone was.

To make matters worse, too many of the characters are one-dimensional.  Theo is a complete jerk, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.  His sister Gwyneth isn't much better.  Hannah is one of the saints, Maggie is another, with Scott Gordon and Sam Campbell (aha! Another Scot!) not far behind.  There's no depth to the characters.  Phyllis is awful, so is Billy.  Oh, wait a minute.  So is Knox and so is Stuart Machalvie.  Peg Machalvie is right up there with them.  As a result, none of them come across as fully human.

The only one amongst that whole cast who does have some substance is Ed Harrison, the owner of the little newspaper.  He alone has a bit of a character arc.  He alone has good points and bad points.  He alone seems to have some wisdom.

The plot is fairly simple, though it has numerous complications due to the various complexities of the characters and their interactions: Theo gets murdered and someone has to figure out who did it.  Very little time is actually spent on the search for the killer, though there's a lot of effort spent exploring Theo's background, which just about everyone in town knew anyway.  In the end the killer is revealed to be pretty much the person you'd expect it to be: there were no major revelations about anyone.  What surprises did come out of the murder and identity of the killer were surprises to other people.

There were quite a few holes in the plot, however.  And here comes a major spoiler.

After Theo's body is found, Willy Neff and his pick-up are missing.  Through the rest of the book, this is a minor part of the mystery, but no one pays much attention to it.  Willy could have been an important witness, or he might even have been the killer.  No search is made.

We know that there was a "January thaw" going on.  What we don't know until toward the end of the book – page 199/245 – is that there is a river running right next to the town of Rose Hill, the Little Bear River, and there is a dam of some sort on this river right at the edge of town.  One would normally suppose that this dam created some kind of pond or lake, because that's what dams do.  Hoover Dam created Lake Mead.  Glen Canyon Dam created Lake Powell.  And so on.

So there's this dam on the Little Bear River that we don't know about until the end of the book.  There is some kind of barrier put up to keep people and/or vehicles away from the water, but it's a barrier that can be opened and closed, like some kind of gate or something.  Calvert "Cal" Fischer has one of only two keys to the padlock on this barrier.

On the night of Theo's murder, Fischer opened that barrier so he could put his boat in the water and row across to the other side of the river/lake to go illegal deer hunting at 11:00 p.m.  He did this in the middle of the night.  One assumes he drove his truck through the opened barrier to reach the water and launch the rowboat.  If he had carried the boat, he could have just hoisted it over the barrier then picked it up on the other side, couldn't he?  He apparently didn't think anyone at all would see him, his truck, his headlights, or the spotlight he took with him to "shine" the deer.

(Deer hunting in season is a big thing in western Pennsylvania.  Schools and many businesses used to close for a week at the start of the season, and maybe they still do.)

Fischer rowed across the water but didn't get his deer, so at approximately 2:00 a.m., he rowed back across, closed the barriers, and went home.

We know there's this January thaw going on, so there's either melting snow or melting ground around this barrier thing.  If there had been any kind of search made for Willy Neff's truck, wouldn't someone have noticed tire tracks at the barrier that's supposed to be locked?  And, by the way, why is it supposed to be locked?  That part is never explained.

I would have expected the police or the county officials under Sarah Albright to have combed the area and have found the tire tracks.  

If Willy's truck went into the lake behind the dam, shouldn't there have been broken ice to indicate that?  Lake water freezes in winter.  The position of the truck as described suggests it's in the lake behind the dam.  So why wasn't the lake searched for Willy's missing truck?

But Fischer supposedly rowed across the river/water/lake.  In the dark.  Wouldn't there have been some current below the dam?  How would he navigate that?

The really odd thing was that a week later, a week after the murder, Fischer took the same risk again, opening the barrier to go illegal deer hunting on the other side of the river.  Now, excuse me, but why isn't there a bridge?  Most communities built on rivers are built on both sides, which implies a bridge.

So I just didn't get it that this whole scenario took place.  It defied logic.

(show spoiler)

That's the end of one major spoiler.

There were lots of other things that didn't make sense but are less spoilerish.

The crime scene, which is the veterinarian's office, is blocked off with yellow police tape.  The veterinarian himself has to have a police guard when he goes in to get supplies to continue his practice on a house-call basis.

Theo's house, which is apparently some kind of lodge, is also wrapped up in crime scene tape, but there's no police presence guarding it.  But it's not a crime scene.  Is that normal?  To have the victim's house sealed but not guarded?  It didn't make sense to me.  

Minor spoiler as a result.

Maggie and Hannah, operating on a tip from Theo's sister Caroline, enter the house and locate a "secret" room.  They wear gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints.  They enter the secret room and learn about some of Theo's more bizarre activities.  They also easily open a large safe in the room by accurately guessing the combination.  They remove several items from the room, even knowing that they're possibly removing evidence in the murder case; later, they will actually destroy many of these items.

After they leave, FBI agents also enter the secret room and somehow open the safe.  No mention is made of how the feds opened the safe.  If the case was important enough for the feds to enter the investigation, what was the result?        

As with other events in the book, Police Chief Scott Gordon lets the criminals off.  Oh, they may be petty offenses – destroying evidence, illegal hunting, tampering with the mail, etc. – but Gordon has few if any scruples letting people get away with stuff.  Is that how it sometimes works in small towns?  Yes, of course it is.  Is that how it should be?  Um, no.  And even if it is, there needs to be sufficient motivation.

(show spoiler)

Okay, end of that spoiler.

So there are too many characters to keep track of and the plot has some major holes.  If the writing had been stellar, it might have carried what was otherwise an ordinary story.  The writing is weak and couldn't carry a dandelion seed.

Author Grandstaff tells far more than she shows.

Maybe it's her style, and I as a reviewer have no right to tell her how to write.  But my review is still my opinion.

She intersperses longish sections of unattributed dialogue with longish sections of very dull narrative.  Here's an example of the dialogue:
      During Drew’s recitation of the events of his day, Scott did not interrupt him until he mentioned Theo stopped in his office.
     “What did he want?”
    “He heard I had a stray black lab and thought it might be one of his.”
     “How did he seem?”
    “Same as always,” Drew shrugged, “rude, impatient, insulting.”
    “Theo’s a client?” Sarah asked.
    “He has a dog breeding business, and pays me a certain amount per month to provide medical treatment.”
    “Does he take good care of his dogs?”
    “I haven’t seen any evidence of abuse,” he said.
    “Ever heard about any abuse?”
    “I think Hannah may have heard complaints about him. She keeps an eye on all the animals in these parts. She’d deal with it if there were.”
    “Any chance the lab you neutered could have been one of Theo’s?”
    “This lab has a huge white star on his chest.”
    “The standards for purebred labs allow for a small white spot on the chest, even though it’s not desirable, but this guy has a huge splotch. A breeder wouldn’t want to replicate that.”
    “Was he satisfied the dog was not his?”
    “No. He demanded to see the dog, and got pretty loud. I had other patients waiting so just to get rid of him I told him the dog wasn’t on the premises. He argued with me for a few minutes, then left.”
    “Did you feel threatened at all? Physically, I mean.”
    “I have a second degree black belt in Taekwondo, so I feel confident in most situations. If you stand up to bullies like Theo they usually back down.”
    “Did he threaten you?”
    “He said he ought to beat the hell out of me. I told him I didn’t think violence solved anything between civilized people, but I was certainly willing to defend myself, so he cursed me and left.”

Grandstaff, Pamela. Rose Hill (Rose Hill Mystery Series Book 1) (pp. 15-16). Kindle Edition.

There are three people in this conversation – Drew, Scott, and Sarah.  We are told that Scott enters the conversation and there's a single speech tag that indicates Sarah asked a question.  But from then on, there are no tags to indicate clearly who's speaking, nor are there any stage directions to give the reader an idea of how each speaker reacts to the others' comments.  The snip above is roughly two pages long; three more pages follow, just as lacking in tags and action.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the passages where Grandstaff tells everything without showing a thing.  When Scott goes to Pittsburgh to interview Sean Fitzpatrick, the scene could have been dramatic and emotional; it's instead bland and flat.

    Scott was glad to see Sean, whom he hadn’t seen in almost fifteen years. The youngest son of Fitz Fitzpatrick looked like a more refined, compact version of his brother Patrick. His dark curly hair was cut short. He was polished and sleek, and much thinner than his brother, who although muscular and strong, had gone a little soft as he approached middle age.
    Sean greeted Scott warmly with a handshake, and invited him into his glass-walled office, which featured a panoramic view of the famous convergence of the three rivers. Once seated, Scott asked him what he knew about Theo’s death and Sean said Maggie had told him the details. Scott gave him the envelope Maggie sent, saying they were retirement fund forms, and detected a defensive wall sliding smoothly into place as soon as he did so. Scott had debated the whole way there whether or not to open the envelope, but in the end had decided to trust Maggie.

Grandstaff, Pamela. Rose Hill (Rose Hill Mystery Series Book 1) (p. 125). Kindle Edition.

Another scene struck me as particularly in desperate need of a good editor.

    Scott could hardly believe his good luck.  Instead of lounging around, Scott pitched in and mopped the kitchen for her while she took a shower. He went to the front room to wait for the kitchen floor to dry. Maggie had multiple photograph albums and he went through them, ostensibly looking for pictures taken around the time Brad died, but also to look at pictures of Maggie.

Grandstaff, Pamela. Rose Hill (Rose Hill Mystery Series Book 1) (p. 71). Kindle Edition.

To begin with, this is kind of creepy, his going through her photo albums without her permission.  Yes, they're friends, and yes, they've known each other virtually all their lives.  But still. . . . it was creepy.  And it would become creepier later, when another cache of photos is discovered and another voyeur identified.

But what follows immediately upon the paragraph of Scott's exploring the photos are thirteen paragraphs describing the photographs.  Of the thirteen paragraphs, ten began with "There were" or "There was."  Two of the other three began with some reference to "the album."  In all of this description, the author provides virtually no reaction from Scott.  This is just plain weak, ineffective writing.

I struggled through all this because I didn't want another DNF.  The plot was okay in terms of the mystery itself; the solving of it had some major holes that could have been fixed.  The writing was weak but not terrible.  The cast of characters seemed like an endless parade.  The other minor plot holes set the eyes to rolling – leaving the annoying spouse to freeze in the blizzard isn't always fool proof, and there was probably some kind of contract that allowed the college president to reside in the mansion – but they, too, could have been fixed.  (Rose Hill, for all its cast of hundreds of townspeople, does not include any of the college staff and only a handful of the 800 students, nor any of the ski resort visitors who bring in substantial business and cash to the town.)

The overall effect was not encouraging of what might be to follow.  The author stated that this was a revised, cleaned up version of the first of the Rose Hill series.  The rest of the books appear to be titled after streets in the town, all of them named after flowers.  I'm just not in the slightest encouraged to read any of them, even if offered for free.  I can't imagine that they are any better than this more polished version of Rose Hill, and if they are any worse, my walls might not withstand the impact with my Kindle.