Discerning readers might be tempted to call Graffiti Grandma a mystery. But Jo Barney’s Kirkus-starred book is a lot more than a whodunit.

Yes, Barney’s second novel is a well-crafted, suspenseful mystery—“A gripping book with compelling characters who don’t want your pity,” said the review—but Barney isn’t so much a mystery writer as an explorer of relationships, someone at home in life’s murky gray areas. Those distinctions help elevate her book from entertainment to literature, from borrow it to buy it.

Grouchy old Ellie Miller, the “graffiti grandma,” is living a tough life. She’s a recovering alcoholic whose son, Danny, is long gone—and good riddance. She spends her time trying to clean up graffiti in the neighborhood, where she reluctantly befriends Sarah, a homeless goth girl, through whom Ellie discovers a group of homeless kids holed up in the nearby woods and living in a perverse family of sorts. To Ellie’s horror, she also discovers that these kids are turning up dead. With other troubled kids and various complex neighborhood characters, the storylines weave together into an exciting climax and a hopeful reconciliation.

“Barney’s narrative nimbleness helps wrangle the storylines as they race to a satisfying conclusion,” the review said, as one crisis after another is narrowly averted, one revelation coming on the heels of the last. Readers will be as breathless as Ellie and Sarah.

For a debut mystery novel, Barney’s story is remarkably accomplished. The genuine, three-dimensional characters help make this book more than simple entertainment, as they grow from addicted to sober, from cynical to caring, from hopeless to hopeful.

The genesis of the novel, Barney says, was a short story titled “Cleaning Up,” featuring Sarah and Ellie. A reader suggested that those two deserved their own novel, and lo, Graffiti Grandma was born. The author’s son opined that a little blood and violence wouldn’t hurt sales, either.

The first draft came easy, she says, and then it was rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Fortunately, she likes the rewriting part, which comes through loud and clear in sparkling prose that hints at her patiently playing with words, delighting in how they can ambush readers. Her prose isn’t artsy and precious, and she’s prone to flirting with symbolism and ricocheting meanings. Sarah, for instance, says of the residents in a tony neighborhood: “They must sit on their upstairs terraces and feel like they were living in the arms of the trees.”

Graffiti Grandma “isn’t a romance, a dystopian dirge, an erotic sex-toy romp, or a detective story,” Barney says. “It’s a thriller with a heart.” Ornery Ellie is at the center of it, and as a septuagenarian and former counselor who’s worked with troubled teens, Barney knows of what she writes. Positive reviews online and from Kirkus merely prove it.

Solarium (2011), her other published novel, follows four old friends, one of whom wants help committing suicide, and her upcoming novel begins with an old woman waking up on Christmas morning with her husband dead beside her, possibly from suicide. But, Barney says, she’s not hung up on suicide, which makes sense since, despite the darkness, her novels are so full of life.

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