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U Is for Undertow

Review

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

U Is for Undertow
by Sue Grafton

  • Publication Date: November 30, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Berkley
  • ISBN-10: 0425238113
  • ISBN-13: 9780425238110