Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Kinsey Millhone Returns in Louisville Native Sue Grafton's "W is for Wasted"

W is for Wasted
By Sue Grafton
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons
496 pages
$28.95 (hardcover)

Author Sue Grafton. Photo – Penquin Publishing.
By Keith Waits

Entire contents copyright 2013 by Keith Waits, all rights reserved.

If one scans the history of detective literature, it is tricky business to find a series following one character that has maintained as high a standard of quality as the Kinsey Millhone alphabet series. Indeed, only a few can boast as many titles in the first place. Robert Parker's Spenser novels (Kinsey's preferred nighttime reading in this new offering) number more than 30, yet even that most popular and venerable of series suffered a variance in quality noted by critic and reader alike. On the eve of the publication of the twenty-third entry, with only three more letters available, it is tempting to examine the newest volume all the harder for signs of fatigue and repetitiveness.

Author Sue Grafton's strengths remain well in attendance, namely an emphasis on characterization and resistance to violence and the action clich├ęs of the genre. Kinsey is a work-a-day private investigator, and tension is developed in strained exchanges of dialogue more often than physical intimidation. As a writer, Grafton indulges in the mundane details of our hero making coffee, eating peanut butter and pickle sandwiches, and cleaning her apartment. But when the occasional bit of action does occur, her descriptive prose turns as lean and economical as the best of her peers.

If Ms. Grafton does grow weary following Kinsey's adventures, she seems to have found a way to energize her writing by altering the linear narrative structure and has, in the second half of the alphabet, grown fond of flashbacks appearing in alternate chapters. In the past, she has jumped back as far as 30 years; in "W" she settles for a point in time beginning four months before the primary narrative, and the scenario involves another private eye, Pete Wolinsky. His scurrilous and disreputable methods are a direct contrast to our heroine's scrupulous integrity, and his connection to the events that occupy Kinsey's attention here only become entirely clear in the final chapters of the book.

What we do know is that he is dead. This is no spoiler; the knowledge is offered early on, before his first flashback appearance. He is one of two corpses demanding Kinsey's attention, the other being a homeless man who was carrying her address and phone number when his body is discovered. The why of this is the lion's share of the story here and leads us once more into Kinsey's fragmented family history, an evolving and absorbing map of dysfunctionality that has proven, again, during the latter half of the series, to be one of the most resonant ingredients in Grafton's writing. We may forget, over the course of so many mysteries to be solved, the details of who did what to whom and when among the bad guys. But we always remember Kinsey and the ad hoc surrogate family she has accumulated: Henry, her doting and endearing landlord; Rosie, the Hungarian proprietor of Kinsey's favorite hang-out and now married to William, Henry's brother. Not to mention police detective and former lover Cheney Phillips. Grafton even reintroduces Nevada P.I. Robert Dietz, one of the more memorable of Kinsey's romantic entanglements and a character that one suspects could stand at the center of his own series.

Kinsey's involvement with the homeless in Santa Theresa also highlights Grafton's sly subtext in exploring the lives of characters who are down and out in what was Ronald Reagan's America. Neither the author nor her alter ego are given to overt political statements; and at least one minor character is interjected to apparently dispense with the more obvious 30-second sound bite social observations, an attempt to convince us there is no hidden agenda. Yet this author's propensity for fleshing out characters with some depth and detail cannot help but expand our concept of homelessness and explode our prejudices against such folk. Substance abuse and recalcitrance are exemplified, but attention is also given to compassion and forgiveness.

One of the curious quirks of the series is that it all takes place in a span of a few years in the 1980s. While we have spent 30 years with Kinsey (A is for Alibi was published in 1983), she has barely aged. It is a testament to Grafton's sense of place that these stories easily occupy a world that is simultaneously specific and universal. The location is the fictional southern California city of Santa Theresa (re: Santa Barbera) and all exists within a shared imagination – built by the author but given wider life by the devoted readers.

W is for Wasted doesn't quite rank as the very best of the series (my own personal favorite remains C is for Corpse). It takes too long to start tying its mystery plot together and when it does, the details seem not quite important enough to fully register as meaningful in Kinsey's life. But Grafton is clearly exploring some fresh aspects of her creation's character and history that are important in other ways, and it is exactly that sort of investment in the ongoing development of our beloved heroine that keeps us coming back for more.

Sue Grafton will be at Carmichael's Bookstore September 12 at 5 p.m. to sign copies of W is for Wasted.

Carmichael's Bookstore
2720 Frankfort Avenue
Louisville, Kentucky 40205

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