With mystery novels it is often a toss up which I like best (or which works best in a particular story)--the mystery, the atmosphere and setting or the characters. Of course the best mysteries have all three elements working together to create a really compelling story. Laurie King's A Grave Talent is an impressive first novel, and it won her an Edgar Award for her efforts. It has all the right elements in just the right combination, which is what I've come to expect from King's writing generally and she usually knows just how to deliver.
Although she is probably best known now for her Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes mysteries, which I have been slowly reading and enjoying, she wrote five mysteries featuring Kate Martinelli, a rookie detective paired with a more seasoned cop. Although I've had this first book in my mystery collection for years, the timing was finally right as the setting is San Francisco, where I'll be going in just over a month now. Mood reading I guess you might call this. And it certainly did put me in the mood!
When the bodies of several children are discovered in a small, closed community outside of San Francisco, the clues point in the direction of the residents whose homes cluster loosely around an area known as Tyler's Road. California and certainly San Francisco is known for its diversity and open-mindedness, and the individuals who populate the neighborhood (which I visualized as less a small town than a more rustic area set in the countryside, dirt track roads with lots of natural space between dwellings) are if anything eccentrics and free thinkers. Which of them would be capable of such atrocities?
When it comes to light that one of the residents, an artist, was convicted and served time for murdering a child, naturally all eyes turn in her direction. When she's questioned about the murders, she's calm and collected and mostly resigned to the attention falling her way. As a matter of fact the detectives are surprised by her reaction--no nervous exaggeration, only a vague amusement, but no fear, which in a woman who had spent nine years in prison was a strange thing.
It turns out that she isn't just an ordinary artist, but she's world famous, known for the barriers she's broken and the waves she's made in the art world. Her works are admired, studied, and make the viewers uncomfortable with their raw intensity. An artist of international renown who is driven by her talent, which is not always seen so much as a gift but as a burden. Living under a changed name, she stays well out of the limelight and her history is not generally known by most of the other residents on Tyler's Road.
This investigation is Kate's (Casey's) first chance to prove herself as a detective, a recent promotion from the ranks, and she's paired with Alonzo (Al) Hawkins who's not terribly pleased to deal with someone with so little experience. She's driven, however, in both her personal and professional lives. And she's determined to keep them well separate from each other, too.
"It was no easy job, being a police officer. For a woman it is an impossible job, fitting into the masculine world of the station while retaining her identity as a woman. For a woman to be a street cop she must, from the first day in police academy, create a clear picture of what is required of her, and stick to it without wavering: she must be tough but not coarse, friendly but not obsequious, unaggressive but ready without a moment's hesitation to hurl into a violent confrontation."
Al comes to have a deep respect for her work and abilities, though the two are fairly cautious around each other initially. Al has his own baggage he carries with him and Kate is determined to show no vulnerabilities keeping a hard shell around herself emotionally. But their working styles click and the move along at a nice pace ferreting out clues and evidence, which sheds light on just who the murderer really is. When Vaun Adams nearly dies, is it an obvious suicide due to a guilty conscious or is she being set up by someone with something awful to hide.
This is an impressively intricate mystery with a moral underpinning to the crime and solution. As well, Kate and Al, and Vaun for that matter are all well developed and nicely rounded characters with many layers of psychological complexities to them. There's a lot going on in the story but it's all tightly woven together, and when you finish reading you really feel as though you've been somewhere, if that makes any sense at all. I like Kate, she's an interesting character and one I can see who has the potential to grow and flower.
And yes, the setting. While most of the action takes place outside of San Francisco, there are just enough references to set the scene and set the tone. There is also a marvelous chapter that takes place on the island of Alcatraz, which I visited last year (and am planning on returning to in October) and King perfectly captures the mood of the place. What better than to move the story along (and this is one that takes its time to build but then picks up the pace and the momentum at the end takes over) by setting climactic scenes on an Alcatraz which saw so many incarcerated. Very atmospheric indeed.
I've got To Play the Fool on my reading pile and the question is only whether to read it now in anticipation or save it for when I am in San Francisco. This second mystery is set in Golden Gate Park. I'm happy to see that the first book is being reissued with a new jacket design (much nicer and more fitting) early next year. It's only a pity that there are only five books in the series, but I've got lots still to explore and then there is always Mary Russell, who I (as fictional characters go) very much admire. I'm also waiting for The Bones of Paris to be released next month, which is set in Paris in 1929. I'm ot sure if it is a standalone or the first in a new series, but I am already in line for it at the library.