Review of U is for Undertow – Book 21 of the Kinsey Millhone series by Sue Grafton


This is the latest offering in the long-running and very successful series from Sue Grafton featuring her female protagonist Kinsey Millhone, set in the 1980’s. I suppose it could be parked on the shelf in the ‘Historical Thriller’ section…

uisforundertowIn 1960’s Santa Teresa, California, a child is kidnapped and never returned. Twenty years later, Michael Sutton contacts private detective Kinsey Millhone for help. He claims to have recalled a strange and disturbing memory which just might provide the key to the mystery. He now believes he stumbled across the kidnappers burying Mary Claire Fitzhugh’s body…

Michael’s account is indistinct – he was only six years old at the time of the kidnapping – and even members of his family try to discredit his evidence. But Kinsey is certain there is something vital within Michael’s recollections. And even when what is eventually unearthed isn’t what anyone expected, she can’t quite let go of the case.

As the protagonists of the tragedy are gradually brought to light, from Country Club parents to their free-living, hippy children, the truth finally begins to emerge. And while stepping back into the past, Kinsey discovers more about her own history too…

Those of you already acquainted with Kinsey in her alphabetical adventures that started back in 1982 with A is for Alibi will be familiar with Grafton’s slow-burn style and steady build of everyday details giving us yet another slice of life in Santa Teresa back in 1988. Those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure perhaps need to be aware that Grafton offers a series of cinematically sharp scenes through Kinsey’s eyes, complete with an eclectic mix of characters – including Henry, Kinsey’s octogenarian landlord; Rosa, the Hungarian owner of the local café and the stand-alone cast of characters that make up the scenario in this particular book. If this is the first time you’ve stumbled across this series, go for it and dive into U is for Undertow. While you may not be completely up to speed with the ins and outs of Kinsey’s background, Grafton doesn’t assume that you are a long-time fan and so the books can be read and enjoyed without any knowledge of the rest of the canon – a refreshing change, these days.

If graphic gore, two-dimensional victims and a clichéd protagonist have lost their lustre, then Grafton’s careful plotting and quirky heroine might tick your boxes. Her solid characterisation gives us a real insight into what makes Kinsey tick – her stubborn refusal to give up when an investigation gets difficult; her fear of commitment; her short-fused reaction to authority; her love of junk food – well, any food she hasn’t had to cook, really… all these foibles along with a dozen others makes her an enjoyable mass of contradictions in the grand tradition of the best fictional detectives. In my opinion, Kinsey ranks right up there with Morse, Rebus and Lord Peter Wimsey.

As with all long-running series, some books are better than others. If Grafton has a besetting sin, at times she rushes the final denouement to the long build-up, so that the final flurry of action rounding off the mystery feels a tad unsatisfactory. Not so in U is for Undertow. Grafton manages to tie up all the lose ends in this plot completely successfully – leaving me with only one nagging worry. Now there are only five more letters of the alphabet left, what will I do for my fix of Kinsey Millhone once Grafton has reached the letter Z?

2 responses »

  1. She did not tie up all the loose ends. She never explained the discrepancy in the dates when Michael Suttton supposedly saw the “pirates”, but his sister claimed he was at Disneyworld.

    • Hi Lisa,
      I took it that the discrepancy wasn’t an oversight on Grafton’s part, but that after the passage of time Kinsey had no way of knowing whose version was correct – Michael’s or his sister’s. In this, I think she was spot on – we get the impression that both of them are convinced they are correct. While the likes of dear old Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle ensure that every last little detail is nailed, in reality this rarely happens and it is a judgement call on the part of the investigator as to who is right. Historians also run into these types of discrepancies when examining the past and write books about their belief as to whose version is the one most likely to be correct – but don’t have any way of actually knowing.

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