Sunday, July 31, 2016

W is for Wasted by Sue Grafton

Many moons ago, Sue Grafton started her Kinsey Millhone private investigator mystery series with A is for Alibi. Since then, she's continued producing books, one for each letter of the alphabet. Kinsey Millhone now has a long and chequered history.

Long ago, I read one or two. Though I usually burn though the opus of an author I like, for some reason, I didn't continue to follow Grafton's introverted PI from central California. I stepped back into Kinsey's life at T, then breezed through U, V and W.

Grafton published this novel in 2013. Now nearing 40, Kinsey is at the centre of a well-developed and eminently believable cast of characters. Unattached and living alone, she's recently learned that she is not the orphan she'd always thought she was.

When a homeless man dies and leaves her a fortune in his will, Kinsey discovers heretofore unknown relatives, distant and eccentric though they may be. She then proceeds to get a bit too involved in the problems of Terrence Dace's boon companions, also homeless.

Her all-too-human willingness to investigate the mysterious shooting death of a shady PI brings her up against an unethical  doctor. He uses homeless people for drug trials, and has a powerful vested interest in making his experimental results look good. This aspect of the story is well-researched, and feels a bit too real for comfort.

The reader can't help but love Kinsey's elderly landlord Henry, who is also her neighbour. A retired commercial baker, he plies his tenant with delicious baked goods and regularly feeds her his homemade soup. After all, as Kinsey says, "What's fifty years between friends?" William, Henry's brother, likes to attend funerals, a skill that proves useful in this novel. His wife Rosie is an oddball too, the Hungarian chef at Kinsey's neighbourhood tavern.

Each book features new and different minor characters that cast light on the intriguing Kinsey Millhone. I love Grafton's her of language and colourful turns of phrase. In a fight scene, Felix operates "on autopilot, converting adrenalin into action." Kinsey returns to her apartment to see "a plank of October sunshine" lying on her floor, and finds an ex-boyfriend who finds life "a slide show," and is "happy with the change of scene."

When she visits the landlady of the dead PI, Kinsey waits in vain for the woman to open a window. She doesn't, and Kinsey quips "I guess she didn't want to dilute the effect of all the secondhand smoke." Later, she reports how the same woman "reached out and removed the cash from his hand as daintily as a feral cat."

The "two dead guys" have to be buried, but when William says he's more than happy to make the arrangements, Kinsey retreats to her studio, "undone by the sudden prospect of tandem funerals."

Grafton's mastery of the first person narrator's voice invites us into Kinsey's thoughts and remind us of our own weaknesses. I smiled indulgently when I read the riff on the attachment of pack rats to the objects they find "irresistable," and cringed with a faint whiff of recognition at Kinsey's bald statement, "I hung up, which left her in the lame-ass position of not having my contact number so she couldn't call back and cancel."

Sue Grafton's description of the setting is nearly as good as the unerring choice of the most telling detail. Wondering if Kinsey's hometown of Santa Teresa is a real place? The answer is yes and no. However, Robert Parker, Ms. Millhone's favourite detective novelist, is completely real.

Respectfully submitted, Carol Tulpar

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