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 case.
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 Soon."
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 sequence.
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 unsolved mystery.
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 aliments.
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 conclusion.
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 on January 23, 2011