The Blue Place starts fast and punchy. By page four we know just about everything we need to about Griffith’s protagonist. Aud Torvingen is a Norwegian transplant to the American south, a hardened ex-cop with bad dreams, and sudden witness to the immolation of a renowned art historian. A woman fleeing the site of the explosion runs into Aud’s arms and straight into her life.
Intent on discovering who torched her colleague, art broker Julia Lyons-Bennet tracks Aud down at the local gym. Seeing Aud going through her karate routine, Julia challenges her to a chi sao duel. The name means “sticky hand”, and Griffith proves during the erotic duel that the best sex scenes don’t necessarily involve actual sex. After their torrid sparring, Julia asks for Aud’s help. Retired, wealthy, and cooly untouched by the art historian’s death, Aud has no reason to accept the job. But, intrigued by Lyons-Bennet, she accepts.
Clues to the murder come sparingly. Like any good detective, Aud uncovers them through diligence, perseverance, and a titch of luck. The investigation is realistically slow yet Griffith maintains a swift pace, teasing the reader with hints of Aud’s difficult professional background, her burgeoning interest in Julia, and a nerve-jangling trip to Oslo. Because Griffiths does such a fine job of fleshing out characters, even minor ones, every scene is compelling and relevant. When the clues at last align in one direction, it is a surprise, but a convincing one, for Griffith has delicately planted signposts throughout the novel.
The Blue Place is an absorbing mystery. I found myself thinking about it when I wasn’t reading it and looking forward to picking it up again as soon as I could. For all that, I never warmed to Aud’s chilly Norse heart. Given her background, both personal and professional, Aud is understandably detached. Her emotional fjord is part of her allure, so much so that when Griffith finally decides to make Aud sentient it is too little, too late. Like Lisbeth Sanders of Larsson’s hysterically popular Millennium series, Aud is tough, ingenious, and a borderline sociopath. Unfortunately, she lacks Lisbeth’s haunting vulnerability. Aud is an icy Superwoman, practically able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Her physical and mental prowess stretch credibility, especially in one so young and well-reared, but it works until Griffith tries to transform Julia into emotional Kryptonite.
Despite that minor flaw, Griffith tells a mean story and has introduced an enthralling lesbian noir sleuth. I would have rather Aud remain invincible to the end but appreciate where the author is trying to take her. I trust Griffith gets her there in the follow-up Torvingen novel, Always.