Fans of the television show Trading Spacesmight get a kick out of this cozy's leading lady, interior decorator Erin Gilbert, and her habit of reimagining every room she enters. But decorating compulsion aside, Gilbert lacks the charisma to perk up Caine's humdrum follow-up to Manor of Death. The action�what little there is�centers around the overstuffed home of pack rat Helen Walker, who lives alone following her sister's death. Gilbert has been hired by Helen's niece and nephew to clean the place out�much to Helen's consternation�but numerous interruptions stall Gilbert's efforts, including visits from Helen's nosy neighbor, Rachel; from her two bothersome friends, Teddy and Kay; and from an intruder who leaves dead bodies in his wake. Despite two murders, the story moseys along as if the crimes hadn't occurred: Helen returns to her house, and people continue to butt into her business. Gilbert, meanwhile, focuses on clutter control, her relationship with rival Steve Sullivan and, occasionally, the murder investigation. Like its suburban setting, this book suffers not from a lack of charm so much as a lack of energy. Indeed, the latest entry in Caine's Domestic Bliss Mystery series is likely too domesticated for most readers, though some may find enjoyment in guessing whodunit. (Mar.)Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Killed by Clutter (Domestic Bliss Series #4)by Leslie Caine
At first glance, decorator Erin Gilbert fell in love with the charming little bungalow on a quiet street in Crestview, Colorado. Until she stepped inside. There, eccentric widow Helen Walker has created a maze of bric-a-brac, papers, and just plain junk that she won’t throw out. Even worse: two bizarre deaths have convinced Helen she is being stalked by a… See more details below
At first glance, decorator Erin Gilbert fell in love with the charming little bungalow on a quiet street in Crestview, Colorado. Until she stepped inside. There, eccentric widow Helen Walker has created a maze of bric-a-brac, papers, and just plain junk that she won’t throw out. Even worse: two bizarre deaths have convinced Helen she is being stalked by a serial killer–and that any one of her nosy friends and neighbors might be to blame.
Erin has been hired to bring the home back to life–and she’s not going to back down, even when her insufferable, irresistible competitor, Steve Sullivan, barges in. But it doesn’t take long for Erin to realize that there is a method to her client’s madness. A murderer does haunt this makeover. And somewhere in the clutter is at least one thing to die for.
Read an Excerpt
Helen Walker scowled at me from her perch on the mottled pink polyester love seat. While fidgeting with the messy bun of powder white hair that sat lopsided atop her head like a shredded pillow, she declared, "You never should have come here, Miss Gilbert. You are not wanted. I am perfectly comfortable living out here in my garage!"
"Even so, now that I'm here, why don't we just take a quick look at–"
"Come off it, Aunt Helen!" Stephanie Miller interrupted. She stood with her sturdy arms akimbo. "Be reasonable, for once!"
Helen narrowed her eyes at her niece, then smiled lovingly at the calico cat that hopped onto the cushion beside her. A second cat, a beautiful smoky gray longhair, let out a rumbling protest from its hiding spot under the car. "I am always reasonable," Helen replied. "I am simply unwilling to roll over and play dead on your behalf, Stephanie."
I hid my smile as Stephanie clicked her tongue and glared at her brother, lurking behind us. "Say something, Peter!"
Just last Friday, the two attractive and well-dressed forty-something siblings had strolled into my interior-design office and hired me on Helen Walker's behalf. At the time, they'd said nothing about their "eccentric and willful aunt" (Peter's description) having moved into her attached two-car garage, only that "the woman is the worst pack rat you'd ever want to meet. Assuming anyone would actually want to meet a hideous pack rat in the first place." (Stephanie's words.)
The deep scowl returned to Helen's delicate features as she shifted her focus to her nephew. "You're kowtowing to your sister about my house, Peter?"
"Aunt Helen," Peter began with a sigh and a hangdog demeanor, "we're only trying to do our best to watch out for your interests." He peered over his sister's shoulder, allowing Stephanie to be human Scotchgard against whatever vitriol his diminutive seventy-five-year-old aunt might hurl his way. "Miss Gilbert here has come highly recommended, and is an excellent decorator, who trained in Manhattan at–"
"I do not need help with my decorations! Christmas is three months away!"
"Peter misspoke." Stephanie sniffed. "Erin's not here to deck the halls and hang mistletoe, Aunt Helen. Erin Gilbert is an interior designer. She's going to resolve your clutter catastrophe. Furthermore, Peter and I have already hired her. So there's no need to discuss whether you think you need her or not. You do, and here she is."
"What clutter?" Helen spread her arms to indicate this carless half of her two-port garage. "As you can see for yourself, there isn't a speck of clutter here."
That was true and quite curious for the World's Biggest Pack Rat, as her niece had dubbed her. I had yet to judge the situation for myself; when we'd arrived, fifteen minutes earlier, Helen had responded to the doorbell by opening the garage door, gesturing for us to come hither, and then had used a remote control to shut the door behind us as though we had driven–and parked–an invisible Buick. Although a few garagelike items lined the unfinished, tar-papered wall behind Helen's white four-door sedan, this second carport was spotless. It held just the love seat, a large electric blue suitcase, a beige two-feet-by-three-feet space heater, and a brass floor lamp, circa 1970 Montgomery Ward. These last two items were plugged into an extension cord that snaked across the concrete floor.
"Given time, the clutter will follow you out here, too," Peter told her meekly. "Or rather, it would, if you were to refuse to accept Miss Gilbert's services."
The older woman's face lit up. "I can do that? I can refuse to let her in?"
"No." Stephanie bristled, firing another glare at her brother. "You can't. It's a done deal. She's been prepaid. Like one of those phone cards at the supermarket. Which you're always buying and then losing in your messy house."
"Oh, I'm not all that disorganized," Helen replied.
"Yes, you are. Ever since Mother died, you've been living in your own little world."
All warmth instantly drained from Helen's expression. She stopped stroking her cat and began to wring her pale hands. At our introductory meeting, Peter had explained to me that Lois Miller–his and Stephanie's mother–had moved into her sister's house two years ago after the death of their father. Lois herself had died just three months ago.
Stephanie grimaced as she scanned the surroundings and added under her breath, "Your own little world encompassing the garage, as it turns out."
Peter dared to step forward far enough to touch an arm of the pink love seat. "Didn't this couch used to be in the living room? How did you move it out here?"
"Teddy helped me. Earlier this morning."
"Teddy?" Stephanie shrieked. "My God! Now that Mother died, is he hitting on you?"
Helen narrowed her eyes, but replied evenly, "I get to choose my own friends, Stephanie. Even if I apparently don't get to choose my own living quarters."
"Ms. Walker," I interposed, "my hunch is that your nephew and niece are unhappy at the notion of having their beloved aunt living in a garage. They're worried you're not comfortable out here."
"Precisely," Stephanie agreed stiffly. "So, let's go inside now, Aunt Helen, and show Erin just what she's dealing with." Her singsong tone was so patronizing that, even though she was acting as my advocate, my teeth were instantly on edge.
With surprising quickness, Helen rose and blocked our path to the door. "No, Stephanie. I'm not staying out here while you lead a full battalion through my home!"
Unable to suppress a smile at the notion of being termed "a full battalion," I cheerfully suggested, "How about just you and I go take a quick look, in that case?"
Helen pursed her lips and sized me up from head to foot. At five nine, I was considerably taller than she was. Despite Colorado's typical warm, dry September weather, this morning I'd chosen to wear a conservative and sophisticated baby blue skirt suit and pearls; my guess was that, otherwise, she might mistakenly assume that, at twenty-eight, I was too young to understand the sentimental value she placed on a lifetime's accumulation of personal possessions.
Though she didn't as much as smile, she finally nodded. "Peter, Stephanie, you two can wait out here." She gestured at the sofa, where the calico cat was now sprawled and licking a front paw. "Make yourselves at home."
"In a garage?" her niece huffed.
"Unless you'd rather wait on the driveway," Helen shot back in saccharine tones. She opened the door a crack, and the gray cat emerged from beneath the car and dashed ahead of us, emitting a rr-r-rr the entire time, not unlike a child squealing as he tries to avoid being touched in a game of tag.
Stephanie harrumphed again and looked at Peter, who let his hands flop to his sides in spineless surrender. With their matching dark hair and eyes and patrician features, it was obvious that the two were siblings, but that was where all similarities ended. Strange to think that this retiring, diffident man was a lawyer. His sister, a real estate developer, had confidence to spare.
Helen ushered me past the heavy door and breathed a heavy sigh of relief as it shut behind us. For my part, although I'd certainly been forewarned, I had to stifle a gasp.
This room made the Crestview County dump look like a city park.
Judging from what was visible of the hexagonal brown linoleum flooring, we now stood in Helen's kitchen. Helen sidled ahead of me through a narrow aisle that cut through towering heaps of junk. Her tiny, elderly body was dwarfed by the precarious stacks that surrounded her. She had hoarded paper products of every imaginable ilk–towels, napkins, crumpled wrapping paper, newspapers, magazines, and flattened bags. Like the cherry atop a potentially lethal sundae, Helen had weighed down the paper piles with heavy objects–mostly clay flower pots–which were now just waiting to topple over and conk her on the head.
Other piles were built from discarded clothing, books, and myriad colored containers. Various items poked out from bulging cardboard boxes–the fuzzy turquoise leg of a stuffed toy, a stiff-with-dirt gardening glove with holes in its fingertips, an orange foam football, a bicycle tire pump.
A stack of used tires served as a gigantic vase for an arrangement of long-handled gardening tools, and I bit my lip as I watched Helen duck below the pointy metal tines of a rake. She must have recently emptied out the garage, only to stash its contents here. That could explain why she'd been so adamant about not allowing her relatives through the door. Now she turned to face me at what could only be termed a "clearing" in the chaos. "Welcome to my home, Erin."
With a forced smile, I said, "Thank you," and followed her. I paused to relocate the rake safely between two relatively sturdy stacks of newspapers, with my mother's words, "This could poke out someone's eye," emerging unbidden from my lips.
Judging from the glimpse of a window and sink afforded by a path to my left, we were roughly in the center of her kitchen. Ahead of me were the refrigerator and pantry. Heaven only knows what she stored in there. To our right was an entranceway to the rest of the house. Thankfully, I don't suffer from claustrophobia, or I'd have been racing in that direction.
Instead, my attention was drawn to a half-opened box near my feet. The box contained at least one truly stunning crystal candle holder, a fuzzy purple slipper festooned with a leering poodle head, and a veritable bushel of small items–from screws to what appeared to be dime-store party favors. If all of these boxes held similar contents, it could easily take an hour to go through each one.
"I suppose I should say 'Pardon the mess,' but that's such a clicheŽ." I swore there was a twinkle in Helen's gray eyes.
"Fair enough." So I'll spare you the cliché of saying: I love what you've done with the place. The funny thing was that I actually was picking up on a wonderful and welcoming ambiance to this home. I'd already fallen in love with the place from the outside. Set back from the road and beneath a thick canopy of trees, the dormers of this charming bungalow had winked an invitation to me. The house had freshly painted ecru siding with periwinkle trim and shutters. (Who can resist real shutters?) Window boxes brimmed with pink begonias and scarlet geraniums. Outside the kitchen window, yellow and red rosebushes graced a white picket fence, which enclosed the meticulously cared-for sprawling lawn. It was absolutely unheard of to have this much acreage smack between the foothills of the Rockies and downtown Crestview.
Moreover, even though I could barely see the walls, I could sense there was warmth within them, and I loved the sensible layout of a classic two-story, dollhouse-style dwelling. My most valuable professional skill was my ability to see the lovely possibilities in any given space, no matter how unlovely its current appearance might be. (That skill seemed to work in reverse when it came to men, however.) This home was a stunning sterling silver vase, now blackened with tarnish, crying out to me to use some elbow grease and uncover its luster.
From somewhere deeper in the house, a cat's plaintive meow arose.
"Ella? It's all right," Helen called. "They'll be leaving soon."
"Ella is your gray cat, right?"
"Yes, and she gets upset easily. Ella doesn't much care for my relatives."
"And what's your calico's name?"
I chuckled. "Ella and Vator? How cute! I love cats. My cat's named Hildi. She's a black longhair with a white tip on her tail."
Helen crossed her spindly arms, which poked out of the oversized purple and magenta floral blouse that she'd tucked into her black Capris. "You know, Erin, I was just being crotchety toward you out there for my niece and nephew's sakes. You don't have to work so hard at getting me to like you."
"I sincerely love cats, Ms. Walker, and, believe it or not, I love your home, too."
Her skeptical expression melted, changing into a heartwarming smile. "Call me Helen. But there's a big problem here, so let's get right to the point." She waggled her finger at the garage door. "You don't want anything to do with those two characters, Erin. Furthermore, my house truly isn't all that bad."
Tact isn't necessarily one of my strong points, but an understatement was clearly in order here. "The thing is, Helen, you have so much open storage that the overall charm of your home is diminished."
Her brow furrowed. "Well, it's true the kitchen needs work. After all, I had to put the garage contents someplace. And I gave up cooking, anyway, after my sister Lois died. And the basement was already jam-packed. Plus, well, I guess the den is a problem."
"When Lois first moved in, we decided to turn the den into a storage room. Neither of us much cared for watching TV anyway . . . though I suppose it would be nice someday to see if it's still in there."
"Helen, my first concern, which we both know your nephew and niece share, is that your home is a fire hazard. These papers are highly combustible." Afraid that the slightest shove could cause a disastrous domino effect, I brushed my fingertips cautiously on the edge of a wobbly stack of yellowing newspapers. "In case of a fire, they'll block your access to the windows and doors."
"Not really." She made a Vanna White gesture at the window. "There's also a path to the back door. You just have to bob and weave a little. Besides, I'm living in the garage now," she reminded me firmly.
"The problem with that is, in an electrical fire, the power will go out, and then the garage door won't open. You'd be forced to search in darkness for the manual release, and even if you found it, you'd need the strength to lift that heavy door."
"Maybe so. But I never use the stove anymore, just the microwave, and I'm very careful to keep everything clear of the heating ducts." She gave me a reassuring smile. "Truly, Erin. You can just give my nephew and niece their money back and turn down the job."
"I already promised them that I wouldn't let myself get discouraged too easily. And I very much want to accept this job." I had to swallow my strong urge to add in all earnestness: This house needs me!
"Oh, but you mustn't accept it." Helen grabbed my wrist and met my gaze with fear in her eyes. "You need to stay out of my house, Erin. For your own good. And mine."
She frowned, her gray eyes still searching mine. "The real reason I've moved into the garage is for my personal safety."
“Because of the fire hazard, you mean?”
She shoko her head emphatically, causing a lock of pure white hair to unfurl from her bun. “Oh, it’s far more serious than that, I’m afraid. Someone keeps breaking into my house!”
“You mean, you’re had a burglar? More than one?” I asked in alarm.
“Even worse.” Her anxious gaze held mine. “I know it sounds crazy, but just three months ago, someone broke into this house and murdered my sister! And now they’re trying to kill me!”
Meet the Author
Leslie Caine was once taken hostage at gunpoint and finds that writing about crimes is infinitely more enjoyable than taking part in them. Leslie is a certified interior decorator and lives in Colorado with her husband, two teenage children, and a cocker spaniel.
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Getting rid of clutter is all the rage. I could not guess the ending of this one.
This was my second Domestic Bliss mystery and I really enjoyed it. This goes into some detail about the main character's genealogy (she was adopted). If you love the character and haven't read this one yet, you will really enjoy all the crazy characters that show up in this book. She describes in detail the rooms she is redoing, so all you HGTV addicts will LOVE this series of books!!
Colorado Interior decorator Erin Gilbert enjoys walking through a house that she is seeing for the first time and redesigning each room in her head. So when she first observes the outside home of Helen Walker, Erin is euphoric as the Crestview bungalow is a designer¿s delight. Euphoric as this seems, it is also a nice easy job though she knows she must show proper respect to the grieving owner. Then she steps inside to her horror she concludes the cluttered home needs weapons of mass destruction as Helen and her recently deceased sister kept anything and everything. The surviving sibling refuses to toss out what is classic junk clutter.------------------------ Still Helen tries to organize, mess and pitch what is obviously worthless in terms of money or sentiment. The problem is Helen insists everything has sentimental value. Helen¿s neighbor Rachel and Erin¿s two friends Teddy and Kay support the surviving sister¿ frustrating Erin who may dump her so-called pals if they don¿t mind their business. However, these intrusions are irritants the fourth invader causes colossal issues as that unknown visitor leaves behind murdered bodies amidst the clutter.------------------ The fourth Domestic Bliss mystery (see DEATH BY INFERIOR DESIGN and MANOR OF DEATH) is a charming cozy especially when Erin is cleaning the house or furthering her relationaship rivalry with competitor Steve Sullivan. However, that is also the weakness of the story line as the homicides come across as just additional clutter to clean up when the heroine gets around to it. Still Leslie Caine provides a fun domestic tale starring a harassed heroine struggling with saving a house on the verge of being KILLED BY CLUTTER, something this reviewer can relate to.------------- Harriet Klausner