Third in my “whoops, I appear to be rereading all of Nicola Griffith’s novels” series, 1998’s The Blue Place causes me to rend my garments and bitterly lament. Not because it’s a bad book — it’s pretty good — but because it is Griffith’s first non-science fiction novel.
As we all know, once authors discover that if they move to mystery, with its order-of-magnitude-greater-than-SF’s audience, and realize that such a large audience offers the seductive possibility of sales high enough that they can
- afford clothes more luxurious than re-purposed burlap sacks,
- live indoors without having to hide in the closets of a stranger’s home,
- perhaps even abandon the diet of sunbeams, lichen, and dew most science fiction authors must subsist on,
the authors almost never return to science fiction.
Enter ex-cop Aud Torvingen, a Norwegian-American who finds Atlanta much more to her liking than the Norway of her birth1. Although the corruption inherent in police work offended her sensibilities, after retiring she found a niche more acceptable to her sensibilities as a … let’s call her a security consultant. Daughter of a high-ranking diplomat, Aud functions as well in high society as she does while putting the boots to some no-neck who has made the fatal error of being a danger to Aud. Aud has a string of casual lovers but nobody that really matters to her; that would undermine the detachment that is core to her personality.
Alas for Aud, there is at least one person who has the key to her heart and Aud encounters the woman in question — Julia Lyons-Bennet — when they meet-cute by literally running into each other one quiet night. Aud instantly assesses Julia as a threat, working out how Aud would kill the other woman if Aud needed to, for reasons Aud only later realizes. The moment is sealed in memory when the house Julia was headed towards explodes.
It turns out that while Aud’s presence near the house is merely coincidence2, the other woman, Julia Lyons-Bennet was on her way to that very building to consult with art expert Jim Lusk, whose home the smoking pile of rubble used to be. Julia was just a bit too late to burn with the house but poor Jim was not so lucky.
Curiously, Jim’s garage was untouched and when the cops look inside they find a prodigious quantity of drugs. While Lusk does not seem to have been the sort of fellow to deal in drugs, assuming that Lusk was such a person and that this was a drug-related hit not only makes the case fit into a nice little box but (for War on Drug-related reasons) has budgetary benefits for the department as well.
After being assured that Aud was totally not the hit-person, not that the Atlanta cops would be inclined to investigate anyone who used to be a cop, Julia takes the risk of consulting with Aud about Lusk’s murder. Julia thinks that she got Lusk killed. Julia is an art dealer and in the middle of a confidential transaction became concerned that the piece she was brokering was a forgery. Lusk, a close friend, was the art expert to whom she turned to authenticate the painting. Now Lusk is dead.
Aud’s investigation confirms Julia’s fears; by trying to authenticate the painting, Julia threatened to throw unwanted light on a little side-project a major figure in Atlanta’s drug world had going. With Lusk dead in a way that discourages a close look from the cops, the painting gone and most especially, with Julia having assured the insurance company the painting was authentic and so incapable of exposing the art fraud without implicating herself, there’s no reason to kill Julia … which leaves Aud and Julia free to pursue their developing relationship.
Except that Aud’s sense of urgency doesn’t go away. Just as her subconscious noticed that Julia’s body language was the body language of someone who knows how to handle themselves in a fight, somewhere deep below the surface of Aud’s mind she is aware that she’s missing something important, that the affair is nowhere near finished, and that even as the two women go on a romantic tour of the Old World, Julia is in more danger than before.
As tempting as it is to turn this into “who could kick Mikael Blomkvist to death fastest, Aud or Lisbeth?”, what this actually reminded me of, much to my surprise, was a specific Robert B. Parker novel, which I will not name because the fact I was reminded of it would be a spoiler for whichever one of this or the Parker you have not read, and also since I have not read the Parker since the Reagan era and I may be misremembering important details3.
Aud is less immediately loveable than a lot of protagonists, appearing unusually reserved even by Norwegian standards. She will grow on you. She’s not really as reserved as she tries to appear. Aud goes out her way to help her unlikable client Beatriz del Gato navigate the unfamiliar waters of Atlanta’s business world even though that falls well outside what Aud was hired to do. And of course then there’s Julia.
People who enjoy what I’ve seen called competence porn will enjoy this: Aud is very, very good at what she does and she demonstrates a laudable range of skills, from applied brutality to diplomacy. Aud revels in her own abilities, which she acknowledges makes her a very bad fit for any society under the Jante Law.
My only criticism of the book is the one I mentioned in the first paragraph of this review. As soon I read this, I could see that skills that had worked very well in SF worked even better in mystery. I knew we’d lost yet another author to mystery’s indoor living, hot water, and regular meals. So far The Blue Place has been followed by two more books about Aud and a historical, Hild, but to date there have been no more science fiction novels. None.
1: Aud was born abroad but her dad is American, which I believe makes Aud a terrorist anchor baby like John McCain, and entitled to US citizenship without having to go through the usual blood-rites immigrants to America have to pass through before the survivors are allowed to become full citizens.
2: Happily, as an ex-cop she’s pretty much above suspicion as the killer. And to be honest, arson’s not her style.
3: Aud is nothing like Spenser himself, either the early version or the pompous windbag he became, and nobody in this book has the pearly white glow Susan did.