As narcissistic as it may be, I admit I'm a sucker for novels set in my hometown. Either I can feel a sense of companionship with the author, as when I recognize a particular coffee shop or restaurant I enjoy, or I can feel the local's sense of superiority, as, for instance, when I notice that a street described as running one way south to north actually heads in the opposite direction in the real world. So I was eager to pick up Elisabeth Elo's thriller, NORTH OF BOSTON, especially when I noted that the author lives in nearby Brookline. I was eager to see how this first-time novelist brought our city to life on the page.
Suffice it to say that I was far from disappointed. Not only does Elo skillfully (and accurately) portray Boston and its inhabitants --- from the monied residents of Beacon Hill to those who make their living on fishing boats and live in working-class suburbs --- she also has written a lively, character-driven thriller that will appeal to readers no matter where they hang their hats.
"Not only does Elo skillfully (and accurately) portray Boston and its inhabitants...she also has written a lively, character-driven thriller that will appeal to readers no matter where they hang their hats."
NORTH OF BOSTON starts off midstream (as it were) in the immediate aftermath of a boating collision that killed Pirio Kasparov's friend, Ned, and almost killed Pirio herself. Astonishingly, Pirio survived for hours in the frigid North Atlantic after the lobster boat she and Ned were on was rammed by a huge freighter. At first, Pirio assumes Ned's death was a tragic accident. But the more she talks with Ned's former colleagues and others who knew about his last days, the more convinced she is that something fishy is going on. And she's not the only one asking questions.
Pirio, who is the heir to her family's perfume dynasty, is an enthusiastic (if somewhat amateurish) sleuth. She longs to clear up the mystery of Ned's death, especially when she begins to fear that she and others in Ned's life might be in danger. Meanwhile, Pirio's death-defying adventures in the North Atlantic have not gone unnoticed by the U.S. Navy, which wants to study Pirio's physiology to see why she survived in waters so frigid that they would have killed almost anyone else. Pirio, who is haunted by memories of her dead mother and in a complicated relationship with her intimidating father, also uncovers a surprising personal connection during her investigation.
NORTH OF BOSTON is not a perfect thriller --- its pacing grows a bit frantic near the end, and there are a couple of supporting characters who don't get quite the due they deserve. The character of Pirio, however, as well as the unorthodox ways she goes about her detective work, make the novel more than worthwhile reading. Prickly, damaged, afraid (or possibly incapable) of love, Pirio is the kind of heroine that really great thriller series are built on. Given that there are a lot of unresolved issues left to explore --- especially Pirio's relationship with Ned's ex Thomasina and their son Noah, not to mention the complicated issues at stake with Pirio's family business and her nascent involvement with an intrepid journalist --- readers will be hoping to see Pirio, and the streets and haunts of Boston, in a sequel soon.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 24, 2014