In 1982, A IS FOR ALIBI roared to the bestseller center stage with the sassy, unconventional Kinsey Millhone behind the wheel of her VW Bug. Mystery readers sat up and took notice of this troubled, 30-something frustrated cop wannabe with the tenacity of a pit bull and the resolve to live life on her own terms.
"[V IS FOR VENGEANCE] contains a cast of fully developed characters who live and play outside of Kinsey’s realm, exposing the glitz and glam of the privileged set whose second and third homes and expensive lifestyles lead to dangerous self-indulgence."
Could Sue Grafton live up to the inevitable expectations launched when B IS FOR BURGLAR came out three years later? Followed in quick order by C IS FOR CORPSE and D IS FOR DEADBEAT, a legend was in the making, and succeeding books were dubbed “The Alphabet Mysteries.” It looked as if she was as determined as her iconic character to beat the odds and go the distance. After all, when you start the alphabet song, you’d better sing it all the way through. Now, 29 years later, she has only W, X, Y and Z staring back from that dreaded blank page.
Kinsey started out in humble surroundings, struggling to pay her bills, working skip traces and snooping on faithless husbands. When her gum-shoeing turned up the occasional murder or insurance fraud case, her cop instincts kicked in and readers were treated to a wild ride.
The books play out in Kinsey time. It is now May 5, 1986, her 38th birthday --- four years since Kinsey first pulled her ubiquitous, wrinkle-proof black dress from her glove compartment to make herself presentable for an elegant soirée in pursuit of evidence where her jeans and turtleneck shirts would stop her at the door. The fictitious city of Santa Theresa, aka Santa Barbara, is stuffy about dress codes, and society still holds with traditions, such as no white shoes after Labor Day and poufy hair. We have seen her through a divorce, broken romances, and life-changing self-discoveries about her own unhappy childhood. She still lives next door to her octogenarian landlord, Henry, and finds the Hungarian food made by the crusty owner of Rosie’s café the closest thing to home cooking she has ever known.
Her day off to pamper herself is not turning out as planned. Kinsey is stretched on her couch after release from the emergency room, nursing abrasions and contusions acquired from a murderous driver in the parking garage of an upscale mall. She had planned on taking advantage of a sale at Nordstrom with some fancy lingerie, but her PI alert system kicked in when she spotted someone surreptitiously stuffing pricey teddies and bras into an oversized shopping bag while an accomplice worked the other side of the aisle. Kinsey alerted the clerk, who called security, but the two women, realizing they were busted, headed for the exit. One was nabbed, but the other got away with Kinsey in hot pursuit to the parking garage. The last thing she saw before she hit the garage floor was a big black Mercedes bearing down on her. She was still kicking herself two days later that she didn’t get the license plate, when she read that the woman who was arrested and released on bail took a header off a highway bridge. Kinsey’s name was in the newspaper because of her involvement in the arrest, and the dead woman’s fiancée hires Kinsey to look into what he believes is foul play.
By Grafton’s own admission, V IS FOR VENGEANCE was a long time coming. Her last book, U IS FOR UNDERTOW, came out two years ago, and “V” had another title until the plot snapped into place. Her latest endeavor is more a novel than a mystery. It contains a cast of fully developed characters who live and play outside of Kinsey’s realm, exposing the glitz and glam of the privileged set whose second and third homes and expensive lifestyles lead to dangerous self-indulgence.
The publication of "V" celebrates a heroic 22 down and four to go. For those of us who were there when the starter’s gun went off, we’re with Grafton all the way. We’ve had as many real-time birthdays as she has and might envy Kinsey’s ability to stop time with her file cards, tape recorders and rotary dial phones. You go, Girl! The finish line is in sight.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on November 17, 2011