Americans have had a long long love affair with Kinsey Millhone,
private investigator. The Sue Grafton creation has graced
bestseller lists since her A IS FOR ALIBI premiere 16 letters ago.
While other detectives have moved on to cell phones and Internet
searches, Kinsey's still hacking away on pay phones and
typewriters, her life frozen in the 1980s. She's a 37-year-old PI
who comes pretty close to hardboiled, if that's possible in Santa
Teresa, California. She's proven remarkably durable through books
that tend to blend together in a nonetheless satisfying mix.
If you haven't already heard, here's the lowdown on Kinsey.
Orphaned at age 5, divorced twice by her mid-20s and happily on her
own these days save for dinners with her feisty octogenarian
landlord, Kinsey pretty much does as she pleases. In Q IS FOR
QUARRY, she accepts an assignment from a pair of near-retired
police officers, Lieutenant Con Dolan and Detective Stacey
Oliphant, who want to reopen a Jane Doe case left languishing for
the last 18 years. Quicker than you can say "the butler did it,"
Kinsey¹s enmeshed in another adventure. The trio's legwork
eventually leads them to the tiny town of Blythe, where the
auto-shop-owning McPhee family becomes the center of the inquiry.
Once the body has been identified, Kinsey sets about cracking the
case, with another fatality to deal with along the way.
What¹s grown familiar about Kinsey's tales --- well, aside
from her frequent forays to McDonald¹s, refusal to accept her
recently discovered extended family and general bull-headedness ---
is the utter everydayness to them. Grafton doesn't have the gift
for words of a Jonathan Franzen or a Sandra Cisneros, but she'll
detail them to the death. We literally watch Kinsey's every move
during the seven to 10 days it usually takes her to solve a
We're there when she brushes her teeth or brushes off suitors. We
watch as she dresses for dinner or drools in her sleep. Unlike your
garden-variety detective, Kinsey does laundry and "uses the
facilities," as Grafton puts it. It's about as close to a
slice-of-life as you can get.
The mystery element is always interesting in the Millhone books,
which are clearly plot-driven. Many of the minute details Grafton
includes as Kinsey observations turn out to be important; for
example, the prison-standard tattoos on a lying inmate's arm. As
Kinsey spends yet another few days in a strange town (she tends to
frequent fleabag hotels in cities with 10 or so streets), she makes
her share of friends and enemies. What helps keep this book amusing
is the interaction between the introverted Kinsey and the two older
detectives, both of them ill but still blustery. Their
old-married-couple interaction has a true ring to it.
Grafton spends just enough time cracking Jane Doe's identity, not
drawing it out too long. Once we know who the girl was, the suspect
list narrows, but not by much. One problem I've always had with
these books is that there sometimes aren't enough clues to turn you
on to the killer --- "clues" that become clear only in retrospect
or were never given to the reader in the first place. It¹s not
really unsatisfying, but it is mildly annoying. Kinsey always ends
up getting her man (or woman) in a bloody, life-endangering climax.
Grafton cleans up the details in the books' epilogues.
What's unique about this book is that an actual corpse, an unsolved
Santa Barbara homicide from 1969, inspired it. Though Grafton
explains in the author's note that the characters are completely
fiction, much of the material evidence is not. It's the first time
Grafton's worked such a nonfiction angle in her book, and the story
turns out intriguingly enough.
Will Kinsey Millhone ever join the cannon of great literary
detectives like Sherlock Holmes, Inspector Javert, even Spenser?
Nah. But that doesn't make her any less entertaining. Q IS FOR
QUARRY satisfies all the Kinsey necessities, with a neatly wrapped
finish and sass in between. Here¹s hoping that R is for "Real
Sue Grafton's Q IS FOR QUARRY is the seventeenth in her alphabet
series that began back in 1983 with A IS FOR ALIBI. I think I might
have broken some kind of record reading through her books when I
first discovered them 3 years ago. I read them as I could get my
hands on them…some in sequence and some out of
On a personal aside, I can't resist a little brag here. When Sue
Grafton was in Phoenix on her P IS FOR PERIL tour, I sat in on the
interview. In Grafton's books there is a Hungarian character named
Rosie who owns a tavern and serves up food that is often delicious
but sometimes unpronounceable and scary to the uninitiated. Having
been initiated by real-life Rosies, including my own Grandmother, I
thought Sue might enjoy some authentic Hungarian recipes for her
next book. She was tickled to get them and gracious enough to
mention my name in the acknowledgments of QUARRY. So that's my
little aside, now back to the review.
All of the Kinsey Millhone mysteries can stand alone but it's kind
of fun to read them in sequence, especially once you become
familiar with her close friends and not-so-close family. Here is
wonderful series that is a refuge for those who enjoy adventure but
cling to the familiar. And, in this respect, we can indulge our
favorite writers when they deviate from their familiar format as
Grafton has done with "Q." This story is based on an actual
Knowing this made me wonder if the fictional murder would also be
left unsolved, in which case the reader would be left with too many
loose ends at the end. But I needn't have worried; Grafton is a
writer that you can trust. She lets you in on all of her clues as
the case unfolds, never pulls suspects out of thin air, and always
wraps up the case in a reasonable manner. And, since outcomes are
so much easier to control in fiction than in life, in "Q" the
mystery does get solved.
The event that this story was taken from involved the murder of an
unidentified female whose body had been found in a California
quarry back in 1969. Although detectives spent many man-hours
working on the case, the body was never identified, nor was the
killer found. Grafton became fascinated with the idea for her new
book and that, in turn, sparked a renewed interest in the case,
which eventually led to the body being exhumed. Then a forensic
sculpture was brought in to reconstruct a likeness of the victim's
face. Photos of the girl appear at the back of the book in hope
that someone will be able to identify her, which could lead to a
solution of the crime.
In QUARRY the familiar Kinsey Millhone narrates an adventure much
like the real incident. Kinsey reveals that she is now thirty-eight
and while she guards her independence, she is feeling a bit lonely.
So, when two old acquaintances decide to look into an 18 year old
unsolved mystery, she happily agrees to join them. Con Doyle and
Stacey Oliphant, the original partners on the case, are both
retired and eager to find something to keep their minds alive while
nature whittles away at their bodies with all sorts of old-age
The clues take the trio to small towns near the Arizona border
where they interview folks who may have known the victim and thus
the murderer. (It's always amazing to watch detectives work
backwards from the little that is known and to see the pieces begin
to fall into place.) In the process, small town secrets are exposed
and old wounds are opened. Long forgotten relationships are brought
back to mind, rekindling anger and raising tempers to the point
where killers generally make that fatal mistake --- the one that
eventually puts them away. And it's her patient, sometimes tedious
detective work that allows Kinsey to be in the nail-biting
As always, I found myself smiling at Kinsey's quirks. She loves
tiny, closed in places…she's not self-conscious…though
she makes few friends, she has a fierce sense of loyalty that is
often born of a childhood that suffered great loss…she eats
peanut butter and pickle sandwiches…and she gave me the
courage to chop unruly chunks out of my own hair when I can't get
to the Cut and Curl.
One of the best writers in the genre, Sue Grafton can be relied
upon to deliver the goods. My advice to mystery fans is to start
with A IS FOR ALIBI and read through Q…by then "R" should be
ready for release.
Reviewed by Maggie Harding Magster2@cox.net on January 23, 2011