"Out of the Blues" (Putnam), by Trudy Nan Boyce
The first novel in a planned series, "Out of the Blues," introduces an appealing new character in the police drama genre, Atlanta Detective Sarah Alt.
Detective Alt — she goes by her nickname, "Salt" — is the creation of Trudy Nan Boyce, who knows the Atlanta cop beat well: She worked on the city's police force for more than 30 years, including time as a detective, before retiring to launch the Sarah Alt series.
As the novel opens, Salt has been promoted to the homicide unit and is given a cold case death to solve, with no partner to assist her. Adding to her challenge, the key new witness in the cold case is a man she sent to prison after he nearly killed her.
While Salt may have no partner, a member of the homicide squad, Bernard Wills, is her somewhat clandestine companion, both professionally and intimately.
Wills is working one of Atlanta's most shocking murders — a beautiful, well-to-do woman and her two young daughters have been shot to death — while Salt is snooping around in the city's darker, poorer and dangerous locales to determine if a gifted blues musician overdosed on heroin by accident, as initially ruled, or was murdered.
As the first novel in a series, "Out of the Blues" introduces information that may return in future episodes — Salt's haunting memories, her family's old Victorian farmhouse and acreage, all manner of dogs that love and guide her, the role of blues in Southern music, the serenity of martial arts training. The police force includes gay, transgender and a mix of races; one brown-skinned cop friend is known as "Pepper," in contrast to white-skinned Salt.
Atlanta locales and history are a recurring element in the narrative and a pleasant feature of the book: The sprawling old Sears, Roebuck building now provides office cubicles for the police; Salt's work takes her to the Martin Luther King Center and Ebenezer Baptist Church, Manuel's Tavern and Underground Atlanta.
Boyce, who earned a doctorate specializing in criminal justice before joining the Atlanta Police Department, describes these places with colorful clarity. Underground, she writes, "had become a tourist attraction and entertainment district that had come and gone in popularity, and come and gone again. But Underground wasn't underground, it was more like a basement, where you could see the foundations of the city if you cared enough to look past the cheap trappings that were meant to sanitize the past and attract tourists."
If there's a flaw to Boyce's first novel, it's that the tug of suspense basic to crime thrillers is lost at times as she indulges in slow-motion descriptive material and tedious chit-chat. Too often, a pokey pace ensues.
But there is a lot to like about Salt and her world of police detective derring-do, and her next sleuthing adventure should be much anticipated.