The protagonist of Nicola Griffith's new mystery novel, The Blue Place, is clipped of speech and rock of jaw, a karate-practicing ex-cop you've read about in countless mysteries. The difference here is that the cop is a chick.
Aud Torvingen is an independently wealthy daughter of a Chicago businessman and London-based Norwegian diplomat. Having left the police force, she's a one-woman security agency in Atlanta.
On a late night walk, she rounds the corner, only to bump into an attractive woman, Julia Lyons-Bennet. They exchange apologies and Aud moves on. Seconds later a huge explosion decimates a nearby house, killing its sole occupant. Surviving, however, was a garage full of cocaine.
We learn subsequently that the victim was an art appraiser with whom Julia had a professional relationship. We also discover that a well-authenticated painting by German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, handled by Julia's art gallery and appraised by the victim, may have been a forgery. The mysteries pile up, and Julia hires Aud to help her find the person responsible for the arson.
As Aud notes, "unless it's all one big coincidence, I'm looking for someone who can find a professional torch at six hours notice, who thinks nothing leaving several keys of pure cocaine behind as false evidence, and who is somehow tied in with a valuable piece of art."
The mystery in this novel, however, forms a sideshow for what's really on display: the character of Aud Torvingen. "I belong to the big bad butch club, where only dykes who have broken people's noses are welcome. Then there's the tough cop club. And the ex-pat club. Not to mention the filthy stinking rich unemployed."
Unlike most detectives, she revels in the violence she can cause. "Violence feels good. It's so simple and clear. There's no mistaking the winner. I like it, but I avoid going there, going to the blue place, because I think I could get lost, might not find my way back, I wouldn't want to find my way back because it's seductive."
This novel would have been better named The Purple Place to accurately represent its prose style. The romantic passages describing Aud's beloved reflect solid training in the Robert James Waller school of erotic description:
"She was my hawk, built to soar above it all. You don't chain hawks. At some point you let them go and watch them rise, and stand there with your fist out hoping they came back, that they don't run into a keeper's gun, or a bigger hawk, or a vast shadowy hand stretching across the ocean from Atlanta." Like Waller's leopards on the tail of comets stretching across the night sky, Griffith's ocean-going shadowy hand is one of those metaphors that should have been blocked.
Midway through, the thrust of the narrative is brought to a complete halt by a truly odd left turn, wherein Aud and her new girlfriend traipse off to Norway. There they meet Aud's caricature of an old-world aunt, eat succulent berries together (we learn that the berry scent reminds Aud of the smell of her lover's hair; the berries remind Aud of, well, this is a family newspaper) and, together they both learn a Little Bit About Life.
Most detectives are tortured souls who live alone, drink too much, and devote themselves to work as a way of avoiding their inner demons. Not our Aud. She's at least trilingual, a master of karate, pool, woodworking, mountaineering, and seduction, as well as Norwegian history and botany and topography and yadda, yadda, yadda. She's never met a lecture topic she didn't like. She tells us, earnestly, that one man described her face as that of a "holy angel," and that she was named after "Aud the Deepminded." If her tongue has ever been in her cheek it was no doubt to illustrate one of the finer points of dentistry. Yet, Torvingen, Aud Torvingen" unfortunately doesn't have the ring of "Bond, Jane Bond."
A couple of suggestions: if the book wants to be a trend-setting lesbian mystery, the protagonist should be something other than a know-it-all superwoman tough chick whose personal qualities merely mirror males at their most pulpy. Second, if this is to be a mystery, pacing is all-we want an engaging plot-driven, surprise-filled narrative, not a melodramatic romance stapled to a recognizably traditional whodunit. There are arguably two middling novels here: one a routine mystery, the other a romance for the same-sex citizens of Madison County.
As Joseph Hanson's gay protagonist, Dave Brandstetter, demonstrates, there's a place in detective fiction for all orientations, and we should be happy that gay characters are no longer the objects of the detective's derision. First, though, you need a good story, and The Blue Place, with its unintentionally comic descriptions, loopy plot turns, and preposterous, stern, chatterbox of a heroine, lacks a solid, engaging enigma at its core.