by Abigail Padgett

Published by The Mysterious Press

324 pages, 1998

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Trouble in Mind

Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson


Readers who've enjoyed Abigail Padgett's modest and well-crafted mysteries about amateur detective Bo Bradley -- including Child of Silence (1994) and Moonbird Boy (1997) -- are in for a pleasant surprise with her latest novel Blue. Padgett has raised the bar for herself as a writer, and the result is a big, ambitious book rich with irony and humor. She makes the reader work a little harder, too. The story here comes at you in tantalizing bits and pieces, and her new heroine, social psychologist and author Blue McCarren, is not exactly welcoming.

"I've read your goddamn book," Blue's newest client, Dan Crandall, yells down to her from atop the eight-foot chain link fence that surrounds her home in the Southern California desert. Blue's Doberman has him under surveillance. "I want to hire you."

Eventually, Crandall does, and thus begins Blue, a mystery more about motivation than murder.

Most of Blue's consulting clients in the San Diego suburbs are retailers who pay her to tell them what makes women buy. But Crandall is a middle-aged engineer from Alaska who wants her to find out what makes them lie. Specifically, why does his 61-year-old sister, Bea "Muffin" Crandall, claim to have murdered a smalltime thug? An earthquake-induced power failure at a local cold-storage facility has revealed the victim's corpse thawing in Muffin's frozen-foods locker. Crandall, who had come across a book Blue wrote about human behavior, wants her to figure out why his sister -- a recent widow, active in area community theater -- would invent a story about bludgeoning a prowler in her garage five years earlier and then "freezing him like leftover pot roast."

The book heats up like the desert setting when Blue's attempt to analyze the surprisingly wily and highly uncooperative Muffin brings her into contact with people she'd rather forget -- including the feminist academic community in San Diego. Blue is thus reminded of her painful breakup with a member of that group, Misha, a feminist activist who walked out on her two years earlier, leaving only a breezy note on the fridge. Blue fled San Diego after that for the remote town of Borrego Springs, where she now lives in the office of an abandoned motel and stores her belongings in adjoining units. (Water for her personal use and motel pool is trucked in weekly. The word "eccentric" does come to mind.)

For Blue, the Crandall investigation only adds to her anxieties about her private life and concerns about her consulting business. (She'll be as astonished as the reader when many of these loose threads come together in a coherent pattern at the book's end.) Why did Misha abandon her? Why did her twin brother back east disgrace the family with a shooting spree that landed him in prison? Why are the seemingly sweet older women in Muffin Crandall's social circle trying to hamper any investigation? And why is one of her commercial clients, a vegetarian restaurant, losing business? (That one's easy: the food is inedible.)

Padgett weaves in plenty of traditional suspense and action, from break-ins and mysterious phone messages to stabbings, shootings, and murder. The feisty Muffin is poisoned in jail, and the people who wanted her out of the way move on to stalking Blue. But the most riveting parts of this book deal with Blue's relationships with her family back in St. Louis, her lovers and would-be lovers, and her friends. That's because you know Blue won't be killed by a stalker -- but will she ever be reconciled with her brother? Will she recover from Misha's rejection? Will she get involved with African-American prison psychiatrist Rox Bouchie (who helps out in the Crandall investigation, bringing with her as their muscleman a rather implausible ex-con and gay fashion designer named BB the Punk)?

Padgett writes frankly and provocatively about social, racial, sexual, and gender tensions, including the highs and lows of Blue's mostly lesbian social life. There's nothing righteous or polemical about her approach -- you can sense Padgett rolling her eyes and chuckling as she describes a meeting of ultra-hip feminists or Blue's unaccountable obsession with Misha, a politically correctnik who assumes a Harvard accent, claims a variety of WASP surnames, and, when she skips town, manages to lug along with her a "complete collection of Ms. magazines in Mylar slipcases."

Of course, feminists aren't the only targets of Padgett's irrepressible humor. Mid-investigation, Crandall confides to Blue that his wife is talking about leaving him, and he doesn't understand why she's unhappy. When Blue speculates that it's because men often "default" to ape-like behaviors, including getting gratification out of hurting creatures around them -- especially women -- Crandall responds by hooting with laughter and kicking water from the swimming pool all over her. "A masterful display of territorial marking, it pretty much defined the problem," Blue observes.

It's important to note that while Blue, the character, indulges in some pretty nasty male-bashing, Blue, the book, does not. Blue's high anxiety about men, combined with a frequent inconsistency between what she says and what she does, render her one of the most complex and genuine female characters to appear in contemporary detective fiction. Her unexpected and tender sexual interlude with Dan Crandall -- contrasted with her flirtations and lusty couplings with lesbian partners -- may leave you more confused about her sexuality than she is.

There are plenty of lighter moments in Blue, as well, most revolving around human foibles. But when author Padgett, who is involved in Southern California desert preservation, shifts her focus to the natural world, this novel deepens in tone and color:

Then in the silence it happened, just a soft snap you feel in your eyes. The beginning of dusk. An edge of dimness that suddenly floods the sky. And then birds. From nests in the ground beneath our hands, from under creosote bushes and inside beavertail cactus they soared. Swallows, cactus wrens, elf owls, and phoebes. Far away, swooping forms that were not there before became ravens, hawks.

When Blue zigzags between the flip and the profound, the changes of pace can be stimulating, but also disconcerting. Similarly, the tone is uneven. Portions of the book that rely on Blue's narration (including the ending) tend to be perfunctory and simplistic, while parts that rely on dialogue are delightfully rich and complex. There's a tremendous amount going on in this book, and Padgett doesn't quite seem to be in control of it all.

Blue has its feet in the comforting and formulaic world of the traditional mystery, but its head -- and certainly its heart -- belong to a larger and riskier realm of fiction. This suggests that Padgett may be preparing to write fiction outside of the mystery genre. Whether she makes that move, or, like her feisty but flawed heroines, sticks with the familiar, Padgett remains a writer of books to savor. | November 1998


KAREN G. ANDERSON, editor of the Seattle-based magazine Northwest Health, writes frequently about crime fiction for January Magazine.