"The Tale of Halcyon Crane" (Holt Paperback, 352 pages, $14), the debut novel by Wendy Webb of Duluth, opens with a summons from beyond the grave: "I was called to the tiny island in the middle of the Great Lakes by a dead woman," it begins. "I traveled there at an unwelcoming time of year to learn the story of her life, hoping to discover my own story as well."
Hallie James' placid existence on Puget Sound has been jolted by an envelope containing two letters: one from her long-lost mother, renowned photographer Madlyn Crane, whom she believed to be long dead; and one from her mother's lawyer, which states that Madlyn has died quite recently of a heart attack.
Stunned, Hallie questions her father, who is in the late phases of Alzheimer's. In a rare moment of lucidity, he understands and responds to her inquiry:
"'I had to save my little girl.' 'Save me from what?' The tears spill onto his face. 'From that place, Hallie. It would have destroyed you.'"
This cryptic confirmation is enough to spur Hallie on an investigation into her past.
Her quest takes her to Grand Manitou Island, a picturesque locale frozen in time with Victorian homes and horse-driven carriages. (It's modeled after the real Mackinac Island.) There, Hallie learns that she has inherited a sizable sum of money, as well as her mother's stately home. But along with this comes a dubious legacy -- her father was under investigation for the murder of Hallie's childhood friend, 5-year-old Julie Sutton.
Settling into her new home, Hallie encounters Iris, the estate's ancient, musty housekeeper who little by little fills her in on her lurid family history. But Hallie soon discovers that Iris may not be the only occupant in her mother's home, as some garden-variety ghosting occurs: apparitions, appliance tomfoolery, kleptomania and the like.
Meanwhile, Hallie plunges herself into the investigation of little Julie's death, flirts with the local hunks and drinks a steady stream of wine, tea and lattes. The romantic plotline lacks the savor of the ghost story, which is entertaining to say the least. Sensational, at times silly and occasionally over-the-top, Webb's page-turner is a guilty pleasure best suited for a lakeside cabin's bedstand.
Megan Doll is a Minneapolitan living in New York City.