Tag Archives: Kinsey Millhone

Review of W is for Wasted – Book 23 of the Alphabet/Kinsey Millhone series by Sue Grafton

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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.

w is for wastedTwo 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.
9/10

Review of V is for Vengeance – Book 22 in the Kinsey Millhone by Sue Grafton

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This is the latest offering in the long-running series about P.I. Kinsey Millhone, For those of you who haven’t picked up a Grafton alphabet thriller, starting with A is for Alibi which was published way back in 1982, you may not be aware that Grafton’s spiky female detective was a trailblazer. Back in the day, women detectives weren’t exactly thick on the ground and the fact that so many of them now exist is in no small part a tribute to Grafton’s successful series.

However, thirty years after the first book was published, the question has to be asked – is V for Vengeance a worthy addition to this visforvengeanceworld famous franchise? Does the latest novel still have the sparky freshness that made it fly off the shelves all those years ago?

In Las Vegas, a young college graduate decides to borrow a large amount of money to stake his new career as a professional poker player. However, things don’t end well when the money is funded by the notorious criminal Lorenzo Dante. Two years later, Kinsey Millhone finds herself watching a woman, Audrey Vance, shoplifting a number of items and helps in her capture. Events take a much darker turn when Audrey’s body is discovered beneath the Cold Spring Bridge, a local suicide spot.

Meanwhile, Lorenzo Dante is becoming weary of his criminal activities and very much aware that the police are steadily closing in. He has other concerns – his faltering love affair; his increasingly mentally impaired father who founded the current organisation; and above all, his younger brother Cappi, whose impulsive and dangerous behaviour has posed all sorts of problems. As Kinsey’s enquiries reach a dramatic head, it becomes clear that she and Dante have one thing in common – they must be careful who they trust…

As is apparent from the blurb, there are a number of plotlines weaving their way through this book and Kinsey’s ongoing investigation and everyday life is only one strand in this book. Do the other characters manage to provide sufficient balance against Kinsey’s powerful, established narrative voice? Absolutely. The book starts with a bang, and while Grafton has always been about steadily winding up the tension throughout her books, this one really had me reading into the wee small hours. I particularly enjoyed Dante’s character – Grafton managed to make a criminal boss seem charming and vulnerable, which is a testament to her writing ability. Indeed, Dante even beguiles Kinsey into cutting him some slack – the only grizzle I had with the whole plot, as I think she is far too hard-edged and unforgiving with lawbreakers to suddenly acquire a soft spot for Dante. However, it is a minor niggle when set against the sheer excellence of the characters; the superb handling of the small details that breathe life into Kinsey’s daily activities; the steady increase in the narrative tension as we uncover the layers of secrecy surrounding all the major protagonists, with the exception of Kinsey. Until the wonderful reveal at the end, which gives the book its title and provides a brilliant extra dimension to one of the major conflict points throughout the novel.

And this is where I think that Grafton has been so very clever. I enjoy reading a number of successful long-running series featuring a single main protagonist and what most of them feel forced to do, is to continue providing extra surprises from their main character’s past. Grafton doesn’t see the need to go down this avenue – Kinsey Millhone is a character that we now know very well, as throughout the books we have learnt all about her difficult upbringing, her suspicious nature, her methodical approach to her work and her complete inability to cook, along with a dozen other traits. So while the main narrative voice is in Kinsey’s viewpoint, we are treated to a new cast of characters involved in her investigation, who have their own agendas. This also prevents the books becoming formulaic and predictable.

All in all, I think V is for Vengeance is a triumph. For my money, it is the best of the series so far – and for Grafton to be writing at this level thirty years after her first book is a testament to her talent and inventiveness. And leaves me with a nagging worry that increases with the passing years – once Grafton has published Z is for Zero, where do I go for my new slice of Kinsey Millhone magic?
10/10

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

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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?
9/10