Wednesday, January 4, 2012


Wow. This is Sue Grafton's best alphabet mystery yet.

Well, I think it is, and I've read them all, beginning with A Is for Alibi (1982), which begins with these memorable first lines:
My name is Kinsey Millhone. I'm a private investigator, licensed by the state of California. I'm thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids. The day before yesterday I killed someone and the fact weighs heavily on my mind.
I've loved all 22 (so far) of Millhone's adventures for being witty and smart, but not deep or noir; for having a kick-ass female investigator who seems like a real person, not an action figure; for including the same lovable minor characters from book to book (Rosie the Hungarian restaurant owner, Henry the fatherly landlord) without ever repeating plots or becoming predictable; and for appearing year after year after year.

But since I grab them as soon as I can get hold of the library copy, and since last time I read one - U Is for Undertow - was 20 months ago - I can't be absolutely sure that V Is for Vengeance is the unquestionable pick of the litter. I can only tell you that as I was enjoying Grafton's deft handling of multiple plot lines and points of view, I kept thinking of Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch series, and that is high praise indeed.

Both Connelly and Grafton, inspired by mid-20th-century greats Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, have taken hardboiled detective fiction and humanized it. Their detectives not only age but also change and grow. Their supporting characters are decent but flawed - or deeply flawed but, usually, still showing traces of grace. Their settings - Los Angeles for Harry, Santa Teresa (a pseudonym for Santa Barbara) for Kinsey - feel real: both authors know, for example, that Californians use the definite article when referring to their freeways ("the 10"). Their books take us well beyond the borders of genre fiction. These are not just page-turners; they are fully-fledged novels.

In V Is for Vengeance, Kinsey's part in apprehending a shoplifter plunges her into a labyrinth of organized crime. Who is Dante, and how does he make so much money? Is Nora's husband stepping out on her? Why does Marvin keep changing his mind? Is it wise for Kinsey to keep hanging up on the persistent reporter? Why is Pinky so nervous? What's going on with Dante's little brother and the vice cop?

And will the risk-inclined Kinsey finally make a fatal error?

I confess that the last question didn't worry me as much as it might have: I know that four more books are on the way, and I am grateful. If you're already a fan of Kinsey Millhone, I guarantee you'll love this one. If you have yet to make her acquaintance, you don't have to read the other 21 novels to appreciate V Is for Vengeance. Read it now. You can - and probably will - fill in the backstory later.