The career arc from writing poetry to noir novels is anything but a well-worn path, though that has done little to discourage Karen Keskinen. At 65 years young, Keskinen, who is a wife, mother, and grandmother, has just released her very first novel, Blood Orange. An impressively twisted and unpredictable noir murder mystery set right here in Santa Barbara during our cherished Summer Solstice season, the book does virtually nothing to indicate Keskinen’s poetry-writing past. With its dialogue-driven plot and unflinching look at the seedy and seldom-discussed underside of our undeniably socially stratified seaside hamlet, Blood Orange delivers an entertaining and surprisingly authentic page-turning experience that could only be rooted in S.B.
“Well, I can hardly write poetry anymore,” offers Keskinen with a laugh after being pressed for insight into the connection between her two markedly different writing pursuits.
Blood Orange opens with the murder of young Lili Molina, a teenager who, before her untimely death, was preparing to be a star in the annual Solstice Parade. From there, late-thirtysomething rookie private investigator Jaymie Zarlin provides the first-person narration as she slowly comes to terms with the fact that if this community-rocking mystery is to be properly solved, it isn’t going to be by the cops (whom she loathes after her mentally challenged brother died in their custody). Once she comes to this conclusion, the true action of Blood Orange begins, and the plot takes off in some rather unexpected directions. Where exactly it goes, however, is not for me to say — you have to read the book.
After spending some time with Keskinen, it is clear that Blood Orange, though very much a work of fiction, would not and could not unfold the way it does had she and her husband not relocated to Santa Barbara from the windy shores of Wellington, New Zealand, some eight years ago. In fact, the case could be made that Santa Barbara itself was perhaps the most heavy-handed muse in motivating the author. First off, Blood Orange is actually Keskinen’s fifth attempt at having a novel published but her first ever in the noir/mystery category, a genre that, thanks to the likes of Sue Grafton and Ross Macdonald, has well-established roots around these parts. In a funny aside, Keskinen admits to struggling with the possibility of calling Santa Barbara “Santa Teresa,” à la Grafton’s pseudonym for the town, before ultimately sticking with our town’s proper name, a decision she personally revealed to Grafton with a certain amount of trepidation during a chance encounter at the airport.
Secondly, to hear Keskinen tell it, Santa Barbara’s complex social landscape and “little veins of corruption,” set against a truly beautiful natural backdrop, provide the perfect fodder for someone spinning a vintage noir tale.
“This town has a huge amount of energy, but there are also all these contradictions,” explains the author. “It is a liberal place but home to a great deal of conservative wealth, as well. … There are big, empty houses and small, full apartments. … Santa Barbara always looks like it just got out of bed, but there is also this careful coolness to it.”
There is no doubt that these contradictions create a certain type of uniquely Santa Babylon–flavored friction, and, for Keskinen, that friction provides much of the descriptive mojo on offer in Blood Orange, as well as the foundations for the book’s well-developed characters, many of whom are certain to remind you of folks you already know or have read about in local newspapers. More to the point, without these seemingly at-odds-with-each-other realities of S.B. life, the juicy grand conspiracy at the center of Blood Orange would never work as brilliantly as it does.
Author Karen Keskinen will be at Chaucer’s Books (3321 State St.) on Wednesday, June 19, at 7 p.m., signing copies of her new book, Blood Orange. For info, call (805) 682-6787 or visit chaucersbooks.com.