IN GREENWICH VILLAGE, a ghost wearing a duffel coat tiptoes through an apartment early one morning. And, an ocean away, an intruder wielding a carving knife slashes apart the potted plants in a London flat. In the short stories collected in her previous book, The Glass House, Laura Furman brings scenes like these to life because she has all the details just right. The Village apartment is entered by way of a tunnel under another building. Police locks barricade the door. But inside, the living room has a marble fireplace, white walls and a magnificent skylight in a cathedral ceiling. It is an apartment which, Furman's narrator tells us, "looks like New York to me." And that plant-filled London flat, set in the remains of a "Late Georgian square" overlooking the ruin of a "Victorian Gothic church," bespeaks its location equally well.
Laura Furman makes particular note of architecture in her writing and, indeed, her stories work something like good buildings themselves. They take their framework from their settings and they make smart use of local materials. When they stand finished you can see that they were made to fit their locations, that set down on some other patch of ground, they would surely topple.
In her first novel, The Shadow Line, Furman has constructed her story just as painstakingly as her shorter fiction and with the same strong results. But if those earlier works were like small, well-made buildings, this book must be a kind of Houston high-rise, tall and solid and wrapped in clouds. Because, unlike a number of short-story writers who turn to long works, Furman has given her novel a solid structure -- a real plot with a mystery to be solved. It is not a particularly tough or tricky mystery, but it contains enough of the right ingredients -- murder, love affairs, a spooky old mansion -- to make it compelling. And the real point here is that in sorting it all out, Furman's heroine, Liz Gold, has to sort out a tangle of other issues involving family and friends and money and love, all of the things that Laura Furman has written about so well before.
From start to finish, this is a Houston story. Liz Gold is the new kid in town, an ex-New Yorker who cannot find the entrance to the Gulf Freeway, who cannot imagine owning a house after a lifetime of Manhattan apartments and who is not sure about making new commitments after a marriage that has gone sour. In Houston, she is writing for a magazine owned by an old friend named Cal and she has moved in, or mostly moved in, with a man named David. David and Cal are old friends too. The real-estate woman who shows houses to Liz is David's ex-wife's cousin. She is in business with Cal's mother. They all have dinners together, visit each other's weekend houses, talk over old times.
Liz Gold has to feel her way through this social network just as she has to learn to navigate the Houston streets and identify the local flora and fauna. "Pines are okay," David tells her. It's the live oaks that have the asps. Don't put your hand on a live oak without looking first." And, for a while, it all seems as simple as that to Liz: if you just know which trees are safe, you won't get bitten.
But, when she starts work on a new story for Cal, a short piece about an unsolved murder that took place in nearby Galveston 20 years ago, the old rules begin to fall apart. Every road Liz takes seems to loop crazily back towards her own circle of Houston friends. And by the time she's ready to learn the whole truth, it's become impossible to distinquish the oaks from the pines after all. What makes all of this work especially well is that Liz Gold is such an unlikely sleuth. She has spent her career writing "puff stories" about clothing and cooking utensils. She has spent her personal life shying away from unpleasantness. Most of all, Liz Gold has spent a lot of time playing it safe -- until now.
There is enough suspense here to bring a shiver down the spine -- something like the effect of the dry magnolia leaves that scrape across the porch of the dead woman's house. But Furman's style is richer and finer than most mystery writing and the story she's telling is certainly more than a whodunit. She takes us right inside her characters' lives, and they are rich and messy lives, real lives. The people in this novel reveal themselves through the houses they choose to live in or not live in: the re-done Houston bungalows, the half-deserted resort condominium complexes, a child's room that smells of "urine and perfumed soap"; the clothes they own or wish they did: a hunting jacket, silk blouses, a pocketbook with a clasp that resembles a pink rosebud; and the objects they keep around their rooms: baby quilts, cookie jars, cocaine to be snorted through $20 bills.
A novel, just by virtue of its length, can be a risky venture for short-story writers. The danger, of course, is that the techniques which have worked for the small stuff won't hold up in the stretch. But Furman's book has just a few shaky spots and no signs of collapse. There is a Chinese restaurant scene with Liz Gold and rich-boy Hunter Corrigan that is as arch and unconvincing as a soap opera episode. And the flashback images of Liz's time in Sweden with her draft-dodger husband are curiously gray and formless in the context of Furman's knack for setting scenes. But these are quibbles, really, tiny chinks in the surface of a highly polished work. Laura Furman has built this book the way any excellent craftsman would -- stone by stone, story upon story.