January 23, 2014

(+++) AT SEA

North of Boston. By Elisabeth Elo. Pamela Dorman/Viking. $27.95.

     The latest hard-boiled reluctant woman detective to appear in a mystery thriller is one of the best. Pirio Kasparov, protagonist of Elisabeth Elo’s debut novel, North of Boston, is a very familiar type nowadays – the dedicated, violence-prone male detective of decades past, the likes of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, having largely disappeared. Nowadays the descendants of Nancy Drew are as strong, intense and determined as any hard-boiled male, and often have a great deal more personality – as Pirio does.

     Like so many other fictional investigators, Pirio is a reluctant one, spurred on by personal circumstances – several sets of them, in her case. The book opens after she has surprisingly survived four hours in ice-cold water after the boat on which she and her friend Ned had been setting lobster traps is rammed and sunk by a huge freighter. Ned is gone and presumed drowned (frequent thriller readers will wonder if he is really dead); he leaves behind a son, Noah, and the boy’s mother, Pirio’s longtime friend, Thomasina. In addition to guilt and uncertainty about the accident – if it was an accident, which Pirio increasingly comes to doubt – Pirio is pulled into the usual web of dark doings because of the perfume company founded by her father and (now dead) mother, because perfumes used to use a whale byproduct called ambergris as a fixative, and ambergris, Pirio comes to realize, has a lot to do with what has been going on north of Boston.

     The time frame for the book is a bit unclear and is a weakness of what is otherwise a very strong narrative. There is no doubt that the book is set in 2013: Pirio specifically states that certain key evidence has not been updated for three years, since 2010. But ambergris is no longer a factor in the perfume business – synthetics are used nowadays, ambergris being difficult to find and uncertain of supply. Also, it becomes clear early in the book that Pirio uses an answering machine, and this later becomes a plot point -- and confusingly pushes the novel’s time frame back a few years. In other respects, though, North of Boston stays up to date: Pirio, who is 30, narrates the book and certainly sounds contemporary. Indeed, her distinctive voice is the main quality that separates this book from other thriller/mysteries with strong female central characters. Pirio’s personality and concerns are modern but, within that context, thoroughly ordinary: uncertainties about love and sex, rebelliousness without any particular cause, difficulties with her strong-willed father and her stepmother, cynicism and recklessness tightly bound together, and so forth. Pirio really isn’t a Sam Spade, although her father, Milosa, pointedly says that she ought to be exactly that. But she is tenacious, determined, observant when she puts her mind to it (something she does not always do: she can be a bit lazy), and true to herself – a necessity for someone who is the moral center of an amoral universe, which is the usual role of the central character in books like North of Boston.

     Although entirely a genre novel, Elo’s is not merely a genre book, thanks to its compelling protagonist. Readers get quickly pulled into Pirio’s life and concerns – the first-person narrative is quite well done – and as a result have an emotional investment in the story that is often missing in thrillers that appeal more to one’s intellect and craving for excitement than to one’s heart. Pirio has the usual interactions with subsidiary characters: a journalist who helps her seek the truth, ex-lovers, and so forth – and these people are not nearly as well-formed as Pirio herself, although her father does have depth beyond that of an autocratic Russian businessman. Actually, what takes on the most life in North of Boston, aside from Pirio herself, are the places where the story plays out, especially the frigid northern environs that Elo presents with a sure hand for atmospheric description. There are interesting similarities between Pirio in North of Boston and Edie Kiglatuk, protagonist of White Heat and The Boy in the Snow by M.J. McGrath, and other parallels with the Cassie Maddox books by Tana French: McGrath and French also rely on detailed scene-setting and characterization as much as overt action and traditional elements of mysteries, thrillers and detective stories. Elo is a less polished writer than French, but not much less of one than McGrath, and Elo’s followup to North of Boston – which is already in the works – is likely to show the author developing her style and her characterization abilities even further. North of Boston itself is an impressive debut that never pushes beyond the boundaries of its genre but that makes the genre itself seem sufficiently intriguing so that readers will want to read more of Elo’s entries in it, especially insofar as they remain focused on the harsh but well-modulated voice of Pirio Kasparov.

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