The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 7 August 2017

The "Alphabet Mysteries" of Sue Grafton

[A] [B] [C] [D] [E] [F] [G] [H] [I] [J] [K] [L] [M] [N] [O] [P] [Q] [R] [S] [T] [U] [V] [W] [X] [Y]

A is for Alibi

by Sue Grafton

Working her way through the alphabet, Sue Grafton is in the midst of producing a very popular series of mystery novels with her bright and feisty character, Kinsey Millhone. In the first (obviously) of these novels, it can be seen why her stories are so popular. Grafton creates a private eye who is human enough to get emotionally entangled in the case she is trying to solve. Kinsey is a tough gal, but vulnerable and self-conscious. In this story, a woman who has already done her time for the murder of her unfaithful husband declares her innocence and hires Kinsey to find the real killer, eight years after the crime. Though the trail is cold, Kinsey plows through the deceptions and fragments of evidence she finds in the coastal California town in which she lives, with side trips to LA and Las Vegas. What makes this book a good book is the subtle plausibility of the story and the characters. We discover Kinsey not through long descriptions of her past but by her actions today. We see the other characters through Kinsey's eyes, as therefore incomplete people. The descriptions and the characters are very real. The book is light fare, but unpretentious, often funny, occasionally touching, and always entertaining. On to B is for Burglar and C is for Corpse, etc. etc...

B is for Burglar

by Sue Grafton

Here is the second in Grafton's ambitious project to give the reader an entire alphabet of mysteries. Kinsey Millhone returns, only weeks after the events that take place in the previous novel, to solve the mystery of one woman's disappearance. What starts out as a routine search, quickly develops sinister aspects, involving a murder coincident with the last time Elaine Boldt was seen sweeping out of her apartment in a $12,000 fur coat. Kinsey starts in Boca Raton, and soon finds that there is a veneer of lies over the behavior of just about everyone involved. The plot of this mystery twists in satisfying ways, sometimes superior to the first Kinsey novel. The author, however, throws a lot of characters at the reader, as if challenging one to guess who the real criminal is. As a result, some characters have precious little time on the page to develop. Others, though, are well drawn. Grafton's fictionalized Santa Teresa (read Santa Barbara) is peopled with some great characters. The town itself is a primary feature of the book. And Kinsey retains the endearing quality of a regular gal stumbling her way to the solution of another mystery.

C is for Corpse

by Sue Grafton

Bobby Callahan is recovering from a nearly fatal automobile accident, which he is convinced was a murder attempt against him. He is wealthy, scarred, and frightened. Bobby hires Kinsey Millhone, in Grafton's third mystery adventure. Spurred on by tragedy an her own genuine attachment to Bobby, Kinsey is soon uncovering a complex of morbid deception and murder. What makes this book (and her others) rewarding is Grafton's gift for imbuing Kinsey with character and emotion. She isn't immune from the troubling things happening around her. She isn't wooden and stoic in the face of death. Kinsey is human and honest in her emotions. She, and the reader, will get caught up in the story and its tragic, but satisfying conclusion. Along the way, there is a subplot involving Kinsey's sweet old landlord. In this mystery, more of Santa Teresa and Kinsey Millhone is fleshed out. Realistic characters populate the landscape of a Southern California coastal town that that Grafton makes real through her vivid descriptions.

D is for Deadbeat

by Sue Grafton

Sue Grafton continues to work her way slowly and deeper into her character Kinsey Millhone as she works her way through the alphabet. She is a little sharper edged and tougher in this, the fourth in the series. A big run-down looking man walks into her office and hires Kinsey to deliver one big cashier check to a teenager. Seems simple enough, but Kinsey walks into an array of death and bitterness. The plot here is a little less intricate than previous books in the series. And Grafton goes a little less deeply into Kinsey's character than usual. However, the tone and compassion evident in that character are as strong as ever, and continue to make these mysteries very human. Kinsey's tough, but not so hard boiled as to be unaffected by the people and tragedies that fill her life.

E is for Evidence

by Sue Grafton

Kinsey's history, previously only alluded to, comes in to sharper focus in this mystery. People loom up from her past. And we see Kinsey deal with the people and mistakes she's had to deal with before the story of the first novel. This book, the fifth in the series, takes place only eight or ten months after the first one. It is the Christmas holiday season, and Kinsey is struggling with the conflict between her independence, and her latent dependence on other people. It isn't any help, then, when Kinsey discovers she is being set up for a fall in insurance fraud. The mystery becomes personal, as Kinsey becomes her own client. The story weaves through the personalities rich and otherwise, in the California city where she works. Ultimately, as in the previous novels, it comes down to some disturbing an unexpected details hidden in the lives of supposedly normal people.

F is for Fugitive

by Sue Grafton

What is it that keeps readers returning to Grafton's novels, book after book, letter after letter? The books are rich in observed detail. Grafton's descriptions of the Southern California landscape are razor sharp and vividly realized. She has a gift for observation. Then again, it could be Kinsey Millhone, one of the most engaging, feisty, and fun in the genre. Either way, one returns to her books as to a favorite serial TV show, or, of course, as to a favorite literary character. In this outing, Kinsey leaves Santa Teresa behind and heads north to investigate a case in the sleepy run-down coastal town of Floral Beach, and up into San Luis Obispo. Seventeen years ago (1966 in the time line of the novels), Jean Timberlake was found strangled on the beach. Her erstwhile boyfriend, Bailey Fowler, cops a plea to manslaughter, but then escapes. When he turns up again, the entire town has to relive events long buried. Kinsey explores the high school past of many characters, some of whom remain wistfully obsessed by Jean's voracious and youthful sexuality. But, if Bailey Fowler isn't really the murderer, then Kinsey travels on dangerous ground. There is an interesting undercurrent here, as people have gone on with their lives. Looking back to their high school years is like looking back into any of our flawed pasts. Embarrassments resurface, and anyone suddenly appears capable of the murder. The murderer, though, is desperate to cover the tracks. Grafton, once again, intricately weaves the tales of many characters. The connections may seem unlikely, but any deeply examined life is full of coincidences.

G is for Gumshoe

by Sue Grafton

Kinsey gets a job on her birthday (5/5/50?) to head out to the Salton Sea and find a missing octogenarian. Grateful for the easy work, she heads out in high spirits, but not before she learns a convict she helped put away has a contract out on her. Are these two mysteries connected? Perhaps. As usual, Grafton does an excellent job describing the character of California's less known (and less glamorous) places. The Slabs, out by the accidental salt lake, come to life in a dry and seedy way. But Kinsey has a lot more to deal with in the coming days, as she unearths some unexpected secrets about Agnes Gray's family. And Kinsey is learning a thing or two about herself, as she teams up with Robert Dietz. He is a surly but kindred spirit and he throws Kinsey off her guard. Grafton's usual talents are expressed here, in one of her faster-moving mysteries. There are the accute descriptions, and the lively characters we've come to appreciate in her work.

H is for Homicide

by Sue Grafton

Kinsey Millhone returns again in a novel that goes somewhat beyond detective thriller into criminal adventure. In the face of scrutiny by an efficiency expert at California Federal (Kinsey's erstwhile employers), she undertakes a fraud investigation which nets her a lot more than she bargained for. Before long, she adopts the identity of saucy Hannah Lee Moore and goes undercover with a shifty group of Los Angeles thieves led by a cruel man with Tourette Syndrome. The book carries all the usual humanity and vibrance of the previous novels, but shows further recognition that the author is on a long multi-book journey with Kinsey. There are plot elements that arise from past books, and ones that foreshadow future books. As always, I appreciate Kinsey's humanity. Characters who meet with an ignominious fate don't just drop out of the book, but their presence is felt by other characters. Kinsey appreciates the ambiguity in peoples' characters and often has sympathy for their pathetic criminal lives. This one starts out a little awkwardly, but has a lively story that carries to its inevitable conclusion.

I is for Innocent

by Sue Grafton

The prime suspect in any murder case is usually someone the victim knew. If it is a married woman, the usual guilty party is her husband. Six years ago, Isabelle Barney was gunned down in a particularly inventive way. Her husband beat the rap, but the crowd living in a tony neighborhood of Santa Teresa is certain he did it. Isabelle's previous husband hates to see her large estate get eaten away by this murderer, and sues in civil court. In walks Kinsey Millhone fresh from being fired from California Fidelity now working for a hotshot town lawyer. She is handed a half-completed investigation left behind by an older investigator who died suddenly and conveniently. As she plows through the messy files, though, it becomes clear that things aren't really what they seem. Could David Barney, the man everyone loves to hate, actually be innocent? When things come together in the end, through a tangle of dead ends, we know if the husband pulled the trigger, and the level of spite in his cushy little community. As always, Grafton weaves an entertaining and intricate mystery leavened with Kinsey's excellently rendered humanity and humor. Grafton has a gift for mundane detail that enlivens her writing. The book is as solid as ever, even if Kinsey is feeling shaky after being fired.

J is for Judgment

by Sue Grafton

Wendell Huff made a deft disappearance off the California coast five years ago. At last, his desperate wife can collect his life insurance. Or can she? Huff may have been spotted in a dusty Baja resort. California Fidelity decides that an uneasy truce with Kinsey Millhone may just save them from paying out half a million dollars. Wendell has left behind him a trail of angry investors, bitter and sad children, and alienated friends and family. Nobody really cares if he is declared dead. But all this unfinished business may be changing his status. Kinsey goes looking for Huff, and uncovers the complex array of relationships from which she tries to untangle his story. Once again, Grafton crafts a humane and engaging story, as Kinsey's own personal story develops and spins off from her investigation. She is an ornery character, compassionate to a fault, and devoted to finding out the truth, even if it means pissing off her friends at California Fidelity. About the time she finished M is for Malice, Sue Grafton herself said that this book might have been her best mystery yet (she was up to P as of this writing). This is her tenth Kinsey novel, and I would agree that it is among the best of the series. The style is somewhat streamlined, Kinsey is growing as a character, and there is a sense of the vague, uncertain, and unknowable in the tone of the story.

K is for Killer

by Sue Grafton

Unsolved murders nag at Kinsey Millhone. There is something lonesome and depressing about them. When she takes the case of Lorna Kepler's untimely (and gruesomely late-discovered) death, she feels a little hopeless. Soon, though, the story unfolds before her, and the reader. Kinsey explores the life of the victim, which turns out to have been carried out almost entirely at night, among dark routes of vice. Kinsey finds herself slipping in to a night schedule herself, and Grafton neatly captures the upside-down feeling of night living. As always, with the eye of an investigator herself, she beautifully draws the scenery and characters of the victim's milieu. She presents us with a long list of possible suspects, kind ones and sleazy ones, all of whom seem to have been conveniently out of town at the time of Lorna's death. Grafton's writing style shows a subtle shift over eleven novels. There is an evident, but appealing, formula. Her writing sharpens, though, resulting in a snappy and entertaining mystery. Once again, Kinsey shows a tender side, sensitive to the fragility of some of the people she meets, and even revealing a surprising compassion for dogs. The flip side of her compassion is a raging urge to see justice done for the ones she cares for. There are ambiguities in the end, the threads not neatly tied.

L is for Lawless

by Sue Grafton

I've come this far, I suppose there's no turning back now. Grafton is up to P as of this writing. I'll get there soon. Kinsey opens this chapter by declaring it a patently bad idea to do her work as a favor for anyone. It started innocently enough, with an intriguing series of events right around the corner from her home. They evolve into a bizarre conspiracy and then into a "lawless" caper that takes Kinsey across the country on a wild goose chase. There are deaths and violence, deceit and old scores yet to be settled. Meanwhile, she is due at the Thanksgiving Day wedding of Henry Pitts's brother and beloved curmudgeonly Rosie who runs the diner down the street. Can Kinsey make it back in time? This story seems a little different for the series, perhaps as Kinsey isn't officially employed and a familiar reader may feel concerned. There is danger and some moral ambiguity as well. Kinsey, as she grows as a character, seems more comfortable with a more vague and forgiving sense of justice and morality. Perhaps this reflects the Grafton's own growth as an author. There is a somewhat looser quality to this instalment as well. There are a few loose ends left dangling, but there is also a more casual fun to the writing. Kinsey seems a little more impulsive, as she launches herself on a plane to Dallas without money or luggage. She spends the rest of the book longing to come home. Grafton's descriptions and observations are as acute and lively as ever, and Kinsey shows some signs of further growth to come.

M is for Malice

by Sue Grafton

These novels seem to get a little more personal in telling Kinsey Millhone's story as each one goes by and Grafton's writing grows subtly more intimate. Here, Robert Dietz reappears after two years (not seen since G), to make Kinsey feel unsettled and unsure. She also reluctantly meets up with a long-lost cousin who hires Kinsey to track down the missing brother in a family who stand to inherit millions from a suspicious will. As always, this opens up a can of worms as the secrets of the family slowly come to light. The missing brother has been blamed for all kinds of family troubles, and his resurfacing makes things inconvenient at best. This is one of the better books in the series, with Kinsey's emotional involvement well drawn, the pace lively and taut. The lost brother turns out to be a very sympathetic character. Dietz, though a key player in Kinsey's life, is more or less a background character in this novel. He remains on the fringe of the main story, but certainly adds depth to Kinsey's character. Kinsey (and perhaps Grafton?) is more reflective here, opening herself up to personal connections. Both Dietz and her lost and found family are bound to remain players in future books in the series.

N is for Noose

by Sue Grafton

Kinsey will eventually come to the reasons she shouldn't have ever stopped in Nota Lake in the first place. She was on her way home from taking Robert Dietz back to his home in Nevada, when, driving down highway 395 in the Eastern Sierra, she looked in to a potential client. She should have kept driving. Selma Newquist wants to know what was worrying her husband in the weeks before he died, quite naturally, in his truck beside the highway. Kinsey seems to think this is simple enough, but she enters the insular world of small town law enforcement and, as always, the secret world behind everyday life. The story takes Kinsey back to Santa Teresa and back to Nota Lake as she runs down the tenuous leads in the story. Tom Newquist, it seems, was on to something that might better have been left unknown. Grafton seems to be enjoying herself in writing this, the 14th book in her alphabet series. She can take advantage of the idea that readers who come to this novel have read at least one, but probably several, of the others in the series. Kinsey is brought back like an old friend. Some of the moral and personal development seen in the last couple of books is not so evident here, as if Grafton is taking a little break from that. There is a lively lightness to the writing, and, as always, the gritty and real descriptions of people and places that make her books so entertaining.

O is for Outlaw

by Sue Grafton

Kinsey returns again a few months after her previous mystery, somewhere in 1986, when she unearths information that leads her to regret some of her actions when she left her first husband back in 1972. Kinsey seems to be acquiring a somewhat sharper edge as time goes on. She is grittier while exploring an aspect of her past and her tough-gal personality that needs some examination. Mickey Magruder, her first husband, left the police force shortly after Kinsey left him. He'd asked her to lie about a crime he was implicated in, and that just wouldn't stand her stubborn loyalty. Now, many years later, he has resurfaced, and brought with him a complex mystery that involves the Vietnam War, old buddies, a little larceny, and another murder. This is a good, well-developed episode in this outstanding series of novels. However, Grafton shows, a little more than usual, her constructive style in the writing. A handful of images, places and characters, seem rehashed from previous works. Things seem just a little too familiar here. Even so, Kinsey has to look at herself and her life almost as much as those others she is delving into. Grafton does this well. As usual, the writing is sharp and the characters and places well-observed.

P is for Peril

by Sue Grafton

This episode of Kinsey's adventures moves a bit quicker (even though it might be the longest of the books) and has a zippy, gritty feel to it. Two mysteries unfold here. First, Kinsey is hired on to follow the cold trail of Dowan Purcell, who disappeared leaving work nine weeks ago. Second, Kinsey is looking for a new office, and the dream listing has some hidden horrors behind it. Perhaps because there are two stories unfolding here, the book seems to move more quickly, and end somewhat more abruptly than previous episodes. This is not necessarily a drawback, perhaps only an evolution of Grafton's style. Kinsey is a little less personal than she was becoming in the past couple books. She is a little less obsessed with detail, as well. Here, she dashes around town interviewing an intricately connected group of people, from ex-spouses and current spouses, to inmates at a nursing home, to disgruntled employees pushing investigations into nefarious business practices, to grumpy teenaged girls. Kinsey is her usual larcenous self, interested in difficult cases and enjoying her breaking and entering and snooping into people's lives. The characters are lively, but a few suffer from the shear number that Grafton is trying to support. Still, she maintains the high quality of her stories and makes one look forward to Q is for Quarry.

Q is for Quarry

by Sue Grafton

Sue Grafton's talent for character and place hold up well in this the 17th in this immensely popular series. There is an evident personal gloominess or somber introspection in Kinsey's character, and perhaps in the author, for this story. In 1969, an unidentified murder victim was found in a quarry outside of Lompoc. Now, seventeen years later, Con Dolan and Stacey Oliphant of the Santa Teresa law enforcement agencies are revisiting this cold case. Stacey is fond of old cases, and is attempting to close this one out in anticipation of dying from cancer. The pair hire Kinsey to help them in the investigation which takes them across the state to the small bleak communities near the California/Arizona state lines. Meanwhile, Kinsey's personal life continues to slowly unfold. More characters from her past resurface while she is in the midst of this investigation, and some surprising links between her clues and her past come to light. Kinsey seems a little lost, now, alone in a spare new office, alone in her relationships, jealous of her landlord's new affairs. The cold case heats up in some surprising ways and amid a veritable mob of characters in a small town in the desert. Is there any hope of identifying Jane Doe after all these years? In a new twist, Grafton adds an afterword in which she describes the real-life case of a Jane Doe murder victim in Santa Barbara. It is 34 years later, now, but she hopes that her popularity and that of her novels, will ring some bells in the minds of the people who once knew this unidentified young woman. Kind of eerie.

R is for Ricochet

by Sue Grafton

Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone is a dependably full character, and sometimes that means not necessarily being the star of her own story. In an opening scene reminiscent of a famous film noir movie opening (or Raymond Chandler novel), Kinsey is hired by an elderly man to go and retrieve his daughter, who is being released from prison after serving almost two years for a charge of embezzlement. As always in stories of this sort, things are not as they seem. Reba Lafferty is soon frolicking with the very man who sent her to jail in the first place. Kinsey feels the need to tag along, to protect Reba from herself and to keep her within the limits of her parole. Kinsey should have quit while she was ahead. There is little hope that Reba will toe any kind of line, and she takes control of her own self-destructive life. Reba even seems to think Kinsey is a bit of a loser all along and is genuinely surprised when Kinsey demonstrates some ingenuity of her own. Anyway, what needs to be sorted out is why Reba would consort with the man who had sent her away. Why is this guy so creepy? What are his own dirty dealings? And where can Kinsey find her next quarter pounder with cheese? In the background is the love life of Kinsey's beloved landlord Henry. In the considerable foreground is Kinsey's own love life. This book is a bit more circus-like than previous ones in the series, but it holds together fairly well and continues Grafton's tradition of very well-described characters and settings. Kinsey, though, may be just a little out of her own league.

S is for Silence

by Sue Grafton

Grafton takes us down a different narrative road in this instalment of her alpahbetized series of mystery novels. Kinsey Millhone is called in to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a young woman 34 years ago. Violet was the town vamp when she vanished on July 4th, and now her daughter, Daisy, wants one last chance to see if her mom just ran off or was murdered. There were plenty enough suspects, though wife-beater Foley Sullivan was once investigated but never convicted. Grafton usually provides only that information Kinsey manages to dig up in her cases, but here she mixes it up a bit by interweaving the narrative of events surrounding Violet's disappearance in 1953. We read more deeply into the lives of the characters surrounding Violet. We know more about them than Kinsey suspects, and we may come to our own conclusions about suspects. This is an interesting writers' device which has multiple implications and great potential. But readers might also feel that they spend too much time in 1953, and that there isn't enough Kinsey and her entertaining 1987 Santa Teresa mileu. Still, Grafton's experiment works, and this ends up being one of her best alphabet mysteries yet.

T is for Trespass

by Sue Grafton

Over the past couple of decades, Sue Grafton has created an almost perfectly sympathetic protagonist for her alphabetical series of mystery novels. Kinsey Millhone is a regular gal, a bit of an introvert or recluse, but who has a deeply empathetic character that the author uses to bring to vivid life the many idiosyncratic characters of her novels. Over the nineteen previous books so far, Grafton has often depicted elderly men and women. Kinsey's landlord, for instance, is an 88-year-old retired baker who is still vibrant and even virile in Kinsey's eyes. His brother lives nearby, as well, and is more feeble and a hypochondriac. And there have been many others. Now, Grafton turns her plot around crimes against the elderly, specifically that collection of cruelty commonly termed elder abuse. It seems a perfect fit for Grafton and her characters, also because the author has used a handful of her novels to turn the reader's attention to pertinent crime-related issues of the day (such as the cold-case murder in Q is for Quarry). Here, Kinsey and Henry's neighbor Gus, a resident grouch, has had a nasty fall in his house. His nearest relative is a niece a continent away, and she hires a licensed nurse to look after him as he recovers. Injuries of this kind often signal the final decline in an octogenarian, so his immediate decay is easily explained away. Little clues make Kinsey suspect that Solana Rojas is not what she appears to be. Rojas, or the woman who stole Rojas's identity, is one of Grafton's nastier antagonists. Her subtle but rapid work takes Gus's life apart piece by piece, transferring his surprising assets to her own name. Grafton places herself, and us, inside Solana's mind in chapters not narrated by Kinsey. She did something similar in S is for Silence, though it is somewhat less effective here. Along the way, we catch a glimpse of Kinsey's day-to-day survival, with numerous episodes of her serving papers on various deadbeats. She also investigates an automobile accident for an insurance company, and finds herself on the tail of a witness who is reluctant to testify for reasons that leave Kinsey feeling uneasy about man's cruelty to man, or to children. There is an uneasy feeling throughout this book, actually, as we look into characters who are all too real. We become invested in these crimes and come away with a sense we're surrounded by such subtle and predatory criminals. It is one of Grafton's most compelling and disturbing stories, and, as always, a brilliantly realized world peopled with immediate and real characters.

U is for Undertow

by Sue Grafton

Increasingly, Sue Grafton's mystery fiction explores the implications and long-term effects of memory. Perhaps this is an element of the increasing maturity the reader may detect in her writing. Kinsey Millhone, her heroine and her voice in the novel, is mellowing with age. While Grafton's epic march through the alphabet has spanned nearly thirty years, just a few years have passed in Kinsey's life. But she, too, is growing more sensitive to memory, and her personal and family histories. Also, in this instalment, there is a character, Jon Corso, who is a writer of thriller novels. Through him and his experience, Grafton also gets to express the determination and effort that goes into all this writing, and the key emotions that make for good writing. The year is 1988, and Kinsey Millhone is working on her own as a private detective in Santa Teresa, California (Grafton's version of Santa Barbara). She is approached by a young man with a strange story dredged from his memory. He claims to have witnessed the burial of the body of a kidnapped child in 1967. This gives us the opportunity to visit the Summer of Love in extensive flashbacks and shifting narrative perspectives (sophisticated developments in Grafton's writing style). We meet a young hippie couple living in a school bus, their neglected but precocious kid, and a couple of bored and wealthy high school boys looking for escape and adventure. All of this ties into two kidnappings in an affluent community of Santa Teresa. Kinsey finds reason to doubt her client's account, but continues to pursue the case because she senses she is on to something. Grafton unfolds the story in a layered manner. In some ways, the mystery is secondary to the life stories of her characters, which she relates with sensitivity and convincing detail. Kinsey's own life story is intertwined as long-lost relatives assert their presence in her life. In that realm, Kinsey is also maturing. Familiar ancillary characters like Henry Pitts make appearances, but play more understated roles in this story. What we get is a sense of memory, the way we handle memory as we mature, and a decent mystery story.

V is for Vengeance

by Sue Grafton

One would think that after twenty-one successful mystery novels, Sue Grafton would fall into a tired pattern, or even a rut. Yet, after all these years, she continues to hone her craft in subtle and, for the reader, satisfying ways. Here, we read a story with background, character and development, all of which are outside of the experience of the novel's protagonist, private detective Kinsey Millhone. Lorenzo Dante is a made man. That he was made by criminal enterprise hasn't yet completely consumed his character. He tries to be a man of honor while lending money to hapless gamblers at exorbitant (of course) rates. Nora, a woman who seeks funds to help her out of her pointless marriage, comes to him to hock what she thinks is a valuable diamond. Dante is smitten by her mature beauty. Interleaved with the story, however, is the story of Kinsey's slow discovery of what is going on behind the apparent suicide of a woman she spied shoplifting. Kinsey discovers a lot going on under the blank surface of Audrey Vance's life, with the help of a number of shady friends and crooks on the streets and in the pawn shops of Santa Teresa, California. The reader discovers early on what is going on, particularly through the author's elaborate explanations of a subtle and unlikely scheme to turn shoplifted goods into a lucrative international business. What remains is to watch as Kinsey picks apart the tale as though unraveling a tightly knitted blanket of deceit. How close will she get to Dante's operation? And what will happen to Dante himself? He is a well-developed and subtle character. A man seeking escape and happiness after years of struggle with family and his crimes. Kinsey's old friend Pinky Ford, too, has a complex relationship with the truth, but an abiding adoration for his upstanding wife, who, by no fault of her own, is drawn into the ugly events that ensue from Pinky's meddling. The story is peopled by Grafton's usual array of characters, from store clerks and cops, to small time criminals and worn-out barflies. She treats them with humanity and grace. There are scenes that don't quite ring true, but then there are moments of startling insight and emotion, the result of Grafton's subtle powers of observation. In the end, Kinsey might not yet know everything that has been going on behind the scenes, but the reader knows more, to an engrossing and satisfying degree.

W is for Wasted

by Sue Grafton

So, it has been 22 novels, and we've come to know private detective Kinsey Millhone like an old friend. Or maybe, we know her like a familiar neighbor, a tenant in the apartment above the garage. Even after all this time, we are still picking out how Kinsey sees the world, still being given a few precious tidbits from her inner life and her history before A is for Alibi. But, as Sue Grafton approaches the end of the alphabet and, presumably, the end of Kinsey's story, is the author beginning to wind down, to tie up Kinsey's life so that she can leave us feeling Kinsey will be OK as the 1990s begin?

It is still late in 1988 when we see Kinsey again. There is a lull in the business, a dearth of clients. She gets a call, though, from the coroner who has found her phone number in the pocket of a dead homeless man found down on the beach in Santa Teresa. At least at first, it seems innocent enough that the man might have been seeking her services. But, as she pokes into the man's identity, an entire network of connections and deceits appears. Without a client, Kinsey picks around the edges of the life the man left behind. She finds ample reason to pursue the details of his death, his surviving family in Bakersfield, and ultimately uncovers a connection to another death and the creepy reasons behind it all. It wouldn't be fair to the interested reader to go into much more detail than that, as far as the particulars of the case go. On the other hand, there are the colorful details of Kinsey's life that we have come to expect in these engaging novels. Henry, the dashing old man who serves as Kinsey's landlord, confidante, and gourmet baker. William, Henry's slightly neurotic brother who has brought Ed, the cat, home with him. Kinsey finds a new connection in the cat, who brings her various dead creatures. She also finds further family connections, now on her father's side, a crowd of characters of whom she isn't particularly fond. Kinsey's life broadens. But she doesn't necessarily welcome the change. Indeed, Kinsey seems somewhat cranky throughout the book, maybe because she isn't really on a paying case, her life interrupted by unexpected responsibilities. How many funerals is she supposed to be responsible for planning, anyway? Meanwhile, she is dipped into the world of Santa Teresa's homeless population.

Here Grafton perhaps takes an opportunity to share with us her view of what has, for decades, been seen as such a pressing urban problem. She also says a thing or two about wealth and its place in a person's sense of security and happiness. How much of Kinsey's view is Grafton's? It is dangerous to expect characters to speak for their creator. And, yet, one can't help trying to detect Grafton's voice in those of her characters. As always, too, there are the particulars of life in Santa Teresa in 1988. Here and there, there might be one or two anachronisms in Grafton's story, but nobody wants to dwell on those when the details are so well drawn, giving so much life to Grafton's writing, and to Kinsey's journey.


by Sue Grafton

X is for xebec. And, somehow, Sue Grafton gets xebec into the book. But one can imagine Ms Grafton, sitting over a glass of chardonnay, wondering how she could make X is for Xylophone work as a title to her 24th alphabetical mystery. There are plenty of "X" words, but there are not a lot of them. So, Grafton chose to heighten the mystery of her mystery with this highly abbreviated title.

Xylophones do not figure prominently in this book. But the title could refer to the big black X marked on a box of papers left behind by Kinsey Millhone's deceased colleague Pete Wolinsky (whose death featured prominently in W is for Wasted). X marks the spot in a cryptic note left behind by Wolinsky, and his memory, and his widow, encourage Kinsey to tie up Pete's loose ends. Kinsey winds up on the tail of a man who is guilty, at the very least, of domestic terror. At the same time, Kinsey is dragged into a domestic intrigue that involves bank robbers and art theft. Somehow, she ends up being her own client. Fortunately for her, a windfall from recent instalments of the mystery series have left Kinsey pretty comfortable. For the time being, she can afford to work for herself, and to keep an eye on the creepy new neighbors who seem bent on taking advantage of Kinsey's near-perfect 89-year-old landlord, Henry. So there is a trio of problems Kinsey needs to solve. In the end, her sense of justice and her own judgement are challenged by the many forms which deception takes. Including self-deception.

As always, Grafton's writing is quick and witty. Kinsey is a cranky female Marlowe, speeding along the mean streets of Santa Teresa, California in her anonymous Honda sedan. (Actually, we also note a strong resemblance to the character and settings of The Rockford Files.) The book is shot through with the everyday tasks with which a regular private investigator completes her sometimes tiresome missions. There is the sense that Grafton has done some random surveillance of her own. So, the book feels immediate, lively and utterly convincing. The author also has a strong affection for older characters, both good and not so good. The lives of the elderly are shown to be as rich and complex as anyone else's. Once again, we feel we get to tail along with Kinsey, and we turn the page in anticipation of justice. But, Grafton acknowledges, the world isn't as simple as all that.

Y is for Yesterday

by Sue Grafton

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