U Is for Undertow
It was in 1983 that Sue Grafton created quirky, free-wheeling Kinsey Millhone in A IS FOR ALIBI. Critics and new fans alike recognized her as a force to be reckoned with. The title hinted that 25 more books were on the horizon, and skeptics jokingly were making odds on whether or not she’d ever make it all the way through the alphabet, while her admirers fervently hoped that she would.
After 26 years and an almost two-year hiatus, just as the skeptics were thinking “I told you so,” here comes U IS FOR UNDERTOW, #21 in the series. Following three rather dark, personally introspective novels in which Kinsey encounters personal demons and truly evil adversaries, this new entry strikes a more philosophical and historical note.
Kinsey, now a successful private detective, has miraculously aged only five years, and it is now 1988 in her world. As the novel opens, an emotionally fragile young man walks into her office with an unusual tale. An article in a local newspaper about the disappearance of a little girl 21 years earlier has triggered a memory of something he thinks he saw on his seventh birthday. He vividly recalls seeing two men digging a hole in the ground in a wooded area near where the missing child lived. There was something wrapped in a canvas bag on the ground next to the hole, and, in his lively childhood imagination, he thought they might be pirates burying treasure. He even engaged them in conversation while they dug, and they kidded along with him to satisfy his curiosity. But now, at age 28, the scene haunts him. He also thinks he may have recently spotted one of the men, but is uncertain. When he takes his story to the police, they believe he is sincere, but with no other information on this cold case, they refer him to Kinsey.
All of the Kinsey Millhone books take place in the 1980s, where, through first-person narrative, Kinsey walks the reader through her investigation using her deductive skills and the technologies of the day, such as they were. With no Google, Bing, cell phones, BlackBerries, or computers to rely upon, Kinsey untangles the truth behind this tragedy that happened when she herself was a young teenager. She visits libraries and courthouses, knocks on doors, hunts down public phone booths, and enters every detail on 3x5 cards. She ferrets out the information by relying on her keen instincts and experience, unencumbered and blissfully unaware of the electronic age ahead of her.
Sue Grafton is an author who defies pigeon-holing into any single genre. Although recently named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America and the recipient of the Ross Macdonald Literary Award, she goes beyond the classic whodunit. In its most basic form, the mystery novel features the bad guy, the crime, the victim, the detective, the pursuit, and finally the good guy getting the bad guy. Grafton’s books contain each of these, but they also deliver another defining element that sets them apart. In UNDERTOW, she develops a parallel novel by stepping out of the character of her protagonist and exploring a memorable era gone by, one of those turning points in contemporary history --- the summer of love, 1967.
An affluent Southern California gated community is examined in what could be called the anatomy of a murder. Grafton introduces us to a complex group of privileged business professionals who all live in the same estate of vast lawns and wooded ravines. They belong to the same country club and travel in the same social circles. Some of their young adult offspring have kicked over the life of privilege for the ’60s culture, and for those of us who remember this decade (I won’t follow with the obvious joke line that begs to be spoken), it rekindles memories of hippie vans, free love, drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll.
Kinsey Millhone’s own past has been coming back to haunt her in the last several books as she slowly discovers new blood relatives she never knew existed. She has been content to live her life of the orphaned girl who made it on her own, but well-meaning aunts and cousins keep popping up and seem determined to bring her back to the fold. This subplot adds yet another layer to the Alphabet Mysteries as she is confronted with the biggest surprise of all --- a box of letters that will forever change her image of her lost childhood.
But, back to the side bets taken by her critics and fans after publication of A IS FOR ALIBI. (What I wouldn’t give for a hardcover first edition of that one!). In a recent interview, Grafton was asked: “This is your 21st novel in the Kinsey Millhone series. Does it seem that the end is in sight?”
Grafton’s response was “Oh, pray God!”
Reviewed by Roz Shea on January 24, 2011