Gritty downtown Boston and the awe-inspiring but unforgiving North Atlantic coast come to life in Elisabeth Elo’s debut suspense novel, North of Boston. Elo shows us the Eastern seaboard through the fiercely loyal, ceaselessly skeptical and fundamentally fearless eyes of Pirio Kasparov. When the lobster boat Pirio is working on is struck and sunk in Boston Harbor, killing her friend Ned and nearly killing Pirio, she doesn’t believe it was an accident. For her own sake, and for Ned’s 10-year-old son Noah, Pirio starts asking questions and doesn’t stop until she has looked everywhere for answers.
Elo maintains suspense throughout by making it unclear whom Pirio should trust with her inquiries. Can she depend on her moody Russian father, Milosa, head of a perfume empire? Old flame John Oster? The mysterious journalist who turns up at Ned’s funeral? Her best friend, Thomasina, Noah’s mother and a struggling alcoholic? Elo creates likable but flawed characters all around, which keeps us guessing right along with Pirio.
It’s hard to say which is the bigger star of the novel: Pirio or the places she goes. Elo evokes city bars, harbor politics and ocean voyages with equal ease. As much as Pirio belongs to the streets of her city, she’s also magnetically drawn to the sea. When Pirio boards a ship headed for the Canadian Arctic, we see the rocky coast and feel the sea spray right along with her. The later scenes in the whaling grounds of Cumberland Sound will both shock and inspire readers with their blend of realism and majesty.
While the tangled story behind Ned’s murder leads Pirio down so many paths that the ultimate connections between them all can feel a bit forced, readers will nonetheless be rooting for the doggedly determined Pirio right to the end.