This month, two Massachusetts writers are publishing new crime novels. But don’t look for cops, DAs, or chalk outlines in either book. Don’t expect to find private eyes with phone taps, long-focus camera lenses, and whiskey.
The books, James Scott’s “The Kept” and Elisabeth Elo’s “North of Boston,’’ are expansive takes on crime. The prime mover in each story is a violent event resulting in death, but the path to whodunit is twisted with hidden family truths and moral reversals. The murder plots are compelling, yes, but the characters and their psychological issues are even more so.
“The Kept” in particular is a genre-busting work. Set in 1897 in rural upstate New York, the novel opens with Elspeth Howell returning home to find her husband and four of her five children slaughtered. Eventually she and her surviving 12-year-old son, Caleb, set out on a journey of revenge, one that’s as brutal and austere as it is revelatory. Scott veers toward the suspense novel, and the western, and the family saga, and the adventure story, and other genres, too, but ultimately the novel defies classification.
“There are genres that I thought about and then tried to undermine,” says Scott. “Not because I dislike the genres or because I look down on them. It’s just that subverting expectations was really important to me.” Scott, who lives among the rolling hills outside of Northampton, didn’t want his layered story of payback to fall into any kind of formula, in order to preserve the element of surprise. And surprises do arrive in “The Kept,” whose title refers, among many things, to the big secrets that emerge.
Scott, 36, lived in Boston and taught at Grub Street, but he moved west last year when his wife got a job at Mount Holyoke College. He says he worked on “The Kept,” his first novel, for 8½ years in spite of an agent who saw a few early chapters and told him the book would be “unpublishable.”
He chose to set the action in 1897 “on the cusp” of major historical changes because the plot secrets needed to live outside of modern technology. “It was easier for the family to isolate themselves and for news like theirs to not spread at all,” he says. “That was essential for believability.”
Scott was also drawn to the harshness of life for those in the more isolated corners of the United States back then, a fascination fueled by his love of movies such as “Days of Heaven” and “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.”
“Caleb is 12 when the novel opens, and to be 12 at that time was very different from being 12 now,” he says. “You were expected to hold your own and hold a gun, things that would be much too adult for us.” In “The Kept” Scott combines violence with precise, imagistic language, such as when an owl caught in a fire flies off, “the light consuming its body, until it dropped and landed in the snow with a hiss.”
It’s that kind of rawness that has led many critics to compare Scott to Cormac McCarthy, a link that he finds both flattering — “he is a god” — and embarrassing. “I certainly have those hopes, that I will go on to have as long and majestic a career as Cormac McCarthy.”
Elo, too, has been the object of comparison, as her publisher has been touting “North of Boston” as “Dennis Lehane meets ‘Smilla’s Sense of Snow.’ ” Hers is a genre novel, she says; “I like the word suspense. And I like the words literary suspense. Maybe I’m a snob but I think thriller sounds a little too formulaic.”
“North of Boston” is told in the first-person voice of Pirio Kasparov, a rebellious, honorable young woman whose lobstering trip with her friend Ned turns tragic when a freighter hits their boat. Ned dies, and Pirio becomes involved in the lives of his 10-year-old son, Noah, and his alcoholic wife, Thomasina, while trying to uncover whether or not the crash was truly an accident. The novel is filled with Boston-area locations and, always, the ocean — something Elo has loved since growing up in Milton with three sailing-obsessed siblings. “I spent a lot of time on boats without ever learning how to sail,” she says.
Elo’s first novel, “Save Your Own,” which she published as Elisabeth Brink, was an academic comedy; “North of Boston” is her first go at suspense. She says her relative ignorance of the genre — beyond Lehane, whom she calls “a great writer” — helped her keep the story line fresh. “I didn’t have the conventions in my head already. I was struggling how to figure out the situation just as the character was.” Her next novel will be another Pirio adventure, split between Boston and Siberia.
Elo, 57, who lives in Brookline, says Boston presents a writer with great opportunities, because of its many varied neighborhoods and its size: “You walk across the Common and then you’re in what used to be the Combat Zone and then you’re someplace else,” she says. “You can walk across the city and hit five different neighborhoods in one day.” She also has a strong personal bond with the city, having waitressed at many a local joint when she was younger.
“Everywhere I look,” she says, “I have memories.”Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew
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