Just in case you were residing on another planet for the last several decades, Sue Grafton – an established screenwriter – was going through a messy divorce and fantasising about ways to murder her ex-husband, when she decided to write down the ideas she had for killing him. After reading a book to her children entitled The Gashlycrumb Tinies, an abecedarian book listing the different ways in which children die, she decided to write a murder mystery series based around the alphabet. As a result, in 1982 the first book featuring Kinsey Millhone, A is for Alibi, was published.
Two dead men changed the course of my life that fall. One of them I knew and the other I’d never laid eyes on until I saw him in the morgue… The first was a local private investigator of suspect reputation. He’d been gunned down near the beach at Santa Teresa. It looked like a robbery gone bad. The second was on the beach six weeks later. He’d been sleeping rough. Probably homeless. No identification. A slip of paper with PI Kinsey Millhone’s name and number was in his pants pocket. The coroner asked her to come to the morgue to see if she could ID him…
That’s the start of the rather long blurb – and neatly sums up the starting point of the novel. Kinsey doesn’t know the homeless man and tries to discover who he is. Alongside her first person narration of the events surrounding this particular case, we get another storyline in third person narrative (he) by Peter, who is quite a different investigator from Kinsey. This dual narrative powers the plot for much of the novel and works very well.
Kinsey’s account is chatty and detailed – her cases generally include a lot of description about the weather, the neighbourhood, what she eats and where… Given this is a murder mystery you’d think all these extraneous bits and pieces would silt the book up and dilute the tension. But they don’t. Grafton is a master of the slow burn and I have always found that the juxtaposition of Kinsey’s everyday life alongside the violence of the crime that she is investigating highlights the shocking nature of the murder – something that doesn’t always come across in the cosier whodunits. Inevitably in the series twenty three books long, some are better than others. See my review of U is for Undertow here, and V is for Vengeance here.
The action takes place in the autumn of 1988 – another smart move in pacing this series. Kinsey’s narrative time is far more compressed, which means she isn’t staggering around on a zimmer frame as she would have been if she’d aged at the same rate as the books were written and released – and neither is she dealing with modern technology such as mobile phones and GPS, which has significantly changed the tenor and mode of murder mysteries. The gradual unravelling of this case produces a couple of real surprises – one of which impacts upon Kinsey’s life in a profound and long term manner. I was struck by the underlying mood of melancholy running through this particular book – the plight of the homeless man and his friends is starkly portrayed. Grafton presents us with one of the current problems in modern western society – that of the growing gap between the haves and have-nots. And what to do when drug dependency or alcohol or just sheer misfortune derail someone’s life to the extent they lose their friends, family and any form of shelter…
I really enjoyed this offering. And if you, too, like your murder mysteries embedded in a distinct setting with a layered, enjoyable protagonist, then give it a go. Then again, you might simply be a Kinsey Millhone fan – along with large chunk of the reading public around the world.