“Oh, right. Let’s talk about me. First, I’m cold. Now sarcastic. You’d think I was the one with the problem.” Pirio Kasparov, the no-nonsense star of Elisabeth Elo’s debut novel, “North of Boston,” actually has quite a few problems. But with the way she seems to effortlessly glide through them, she can be forgiven for thinking otherwise.
To say that Pirio is a multifaceted character would be an understatement. Her parents are Russian immigrants, but she grew up on Beacon Hill and spent her teens raising hell at a posh boarding school with her friend Thomasina.
Despite their high-class pedigrees, Pirio and Thomasina spend most of their time hanging out in waterfront dives with rough-edged fishermen from South Boston, where Pirio’s frequent references to Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, and Aksyonov go unappreciated.
North of Boston
Somehow, Pirio ends up baiting traps on a fishing boat with Thomasina’s ex, Ned — she’s as comfortable on the high seas as she is in the boardroom of her family’s successful perfume company, where she works as an executive. When the boat is sunk in a nighttime collision with a freighter, Ned and Pirio are thrust into the icy cold waters of Boston Harbor — he perishes, but she survives, thanks to a physiological quirk that makes her impervious to hypothermia.
The US Navy asks to study her, but their tests reveal little about how her body staved off the cold. “We have no idea how that happened,” a Navy doctor tells her. “We’ve never seen that in a human before.”
She also has an acutely refined sense of smell, capable of identifying trace amounts of even the most obscure scents, such as oud wood (a fragrance used in perfumes) and oak moss — a skill that comes in handy when a man wearing cologne breaks into her apartment while she’s out. In short, she’s a superhero.
Pirio’s instincts tell her that the collision was no accident, and soon she’s hot on the trail of a wide-ranging mystery that ultimately takes her far north of Boston, to the whaling grounds of Canada’s Baffin Island.
Like its protagonist, “North of Boston” is many things: a murder mystery, an environmental thriller, and a domestic drama. When she’s not breaking into the offices of a shady corporation or sneaking onto a luxury yacht full of poachers, Pirio spends her time juggling a series of turbulent relationships. Her cynical father, Milosa, is a constant source of irritation, and Noah, Thomasina and Ned’s saucer-eyed child, clings to Pirio for dear life. It’s more than any mere human could expect to navigate.
Elo’s writing does offer moments of beautiful lucidity, such as when Pirio briefly muses on her ex-husband,. “His voice feels like dusk in August, when the warm day meets the cool night and they kiss. From the portal of my ear, it spreads into every part of me.”
But more often, Pirio is gratingly snarky, even when she’s in grave danger. In the book’s climax, Pirio stops to engage in a tedious exchange of insults with a 14-year-old girl she meets in a hospital chapel, even though someone’s chasing her.
On the poacher’s yacht, she’s cuffed to a chair and given the choice of explaining herself, or being killed and dumped into the bay. “It’ll save time if you kill me now,” she says, unfazed by the precariousness of her situation. Of course, when the shooting does start, it’s Pirio who’s the crack shot, hitting all of her targets with ease, as the bullets of professional killers miss her by a mile.
“A really good ending is the one you don’t see coming,” she tells her captors. Elo certainly packs “North of Boston” full of twists and turns meant to keep readers guessing. But with a character as impossibly special as Pirio, there’s never any doubt about where this story is headed.