The Blue Place

by Nicola Griffith

Cover image

Series: Aud Torvingen #1
Publisher: Perrenial
Copyright: 1998
Printing: 2002
ISBN: 0-380-79088-2
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 308

Buy at Powell's Books

Nicola Griffith is best known, at least in my circles, for her science fiction and editing, but this is the first of a pair of mystery novels. Sort of. One could argue about the genre; The Blue Place partakes of bits of several. It starts as a noir private investigator story and grows up into a beautiful emotional story about the intermingling of lives.

Aud Torvingen is a former police officer and now occasional bodyguard and investigator in Atlanta. When out walking one night, she runs into a woman coming around a corner, and shortly thereafter a house towards which the woman was running explodes. The woman is Julia Lyons-Bennet, an art buyer. The house was the house of an art appraiser who discovered that a painting she had recently acquired again was a fake, although she's certain that it was genuine when she sold it the first time. Drugs are discovered in the garage of the house and the police write it off as drug-related, but Aud thinks something adds up.

This is the mystery hook, and Griffith writes compelling noir. Aud is dangerous and perceptive, a martial artist, and sharply observant about the world and the dangers that people walk past unnoticed. Her first-person narrative voice (in which the entire story is told) carries a reserve, a careful consideration of what she shares and what she doesn't and a cautious distance from her own emotions, that grew slowly on me through the book. It's an excellent use of the subtle shadings possible with first person and makes the book feel like it was written in that voice to a purpose rather than simply because that's the genre expectation.

Aud is also memorably observant of the sensual shape of the world around her, to the degree that this thriller crime novel offered me much of the pleasure of travel fiction. This shows some in the descriptions of Atlanta (Aud's description of what it's like to breathe warm air will stick with me for a while), but when the action shifts to Norway towards the middle of the book, it becomes something exceptional. I came away wanting to visit Norway badly, not as much because of descriptions of beautiful landscapes (although those are present) but because of the power of Aud's descriptions of how Norway feels. Griffith captures the feeling of beauty and the reaction of homecoming mediated through a character with quiet and deep emotions and uses both to illustrate the other. I recognized the feel of Norway because I'd already felt Norway in Aud's attitude. I haven't travelled myself to know how accurate Griffith's portrayal is, but it felt dead-on.

Besides picking up bits of travel fiction, The Blue Place also picks up bits of romance, but of a particularly intelligent and thoughtful kind. At the start, the mystery is abstract, a curiosity. By the end of the book, it has acquired deep personal resonance because a loved one is threatened. We get to know Aud — and Aud gets to know herself — through that transition, using the mystery as a driver for characterization rather than treating the characters as incidental to the mystery. The romance is believable and sweet, handled lightly without unnecessary fanfare or excessive sex, and the more powerful for being told through a first-person voice. It's not a noir romance; it adds a completely different depth to Aud's character.

Aud is a remarkable character, one of the best that I've read in a while. She is very present in the world, tactile, very conscious of her surroundings, her actions, and her senses. The resulting vivid descriptions drew me into her world and her head. The descriptions of her woodworking hobby are as compelling as the descriptions of Norway; her love of her world is more powerful for being described in a calm, matter-of-fact tone. The depth of emotion becomes obvious not from being thrust at the reader but from the vividness and specificity of her observations, her reactions to activities she loves, and her quiet introduction of another woman to her world.

I was interested and entertained by the first half of The Blue Place; I was completely engrossed by the second half. When the story reaches Norway and the romance builds up, it kicks into a different gear. This is top-notch character-driven fiction that I'll recommend to anyone regardless of genre. Just be warned that this is not a book for simple, happy endings; it's a book that lures you in with the competence of the protagonist and the beauty of its happy emotions and then kicks you in the gut. I loved the experience.

Followed by Stay.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-08-27

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