In a recent interview for Time magazine, author Sue Grafton said that Kinsey Milhone, the hero of her long-running alphabet series, is “the person I might have been had I not married young and had children. I always say that I’m just like Kinsey Milhone unless you don’t like her, and then I disavow any connection.”
Grafton began telling Kinsey’s story in 1982 with “A is for Alibi,” and through the years, Kinsey’s fans have consistently put Grafton at the top of the New York Times’ bestseller list.
In Grafton’s latest release, “U is for Undertow,” it’s 1988, and we find our heroine trying to solve the 1967 disappearance of a four-year-old girl in Santa Teresa, California, where Kinsey works as private investigator.
A young man appears at Kinsey’s office claiming he saw two men burying something in a neighbor’s back yard the day the toddler went missing. Due to a lack of money, the young man hires Kinsey for only one day, which of course, turns into a full-blown investigation that leads Kinsey on a dangerous collision course with the truth.
Kinsey is nothing if not tenacious. Although there is very little evidence in the case, she keeps plugging, discovering more than the police investigators did when they originally worked the case. She finally puts all the pieces together, but not before another tragedy.
Grafton telegraphs the identity of the bad guys early on. She spends an inordinate amount of time recounting the circumstances that shaped them, and she tosses out a lot of red herrings before getting to the real reason for the tragedy – most of it failing to ring true. In fact, the actual unveiling of the crime is a bit anticlimactic and puzzling.
There is also a prominent storyline dealing with the effects of alcoholism – without resolution.
Grafton uses the sound of a leaf blower to mask any noise the kidnappers might have made when grabbing the little girl from her back yard. Readers at mySSnews.com’s forum answered the call for help on this one.
It seems that some kind of air displacement device was available in 1967, but it probably wasn’t the household kind Grafton talks about in the book. Where is an editorial staff when you need it?
However, Grafton’s cumbersome plot doesn’t take away from Kinsey’s charisma. She remains the same girl who can charm her way through bureaucratic red tape and find clues everyone else overlooked. She still cuts her hair with nail scissors. She is at a loss for what to do about make-up or how to flirt with anyone other than her precious 88-year-old landlord Henry. Her wardrobe has expanded from one little black wrinkle-resistant dress to include a skirt, but she still prefers jeans.
In this book, Kinsey’s also dealing with a family-related dilemma. Her parents were killed in a car accident when she was young, and she was raised by her maiden Aunt Virginia, against the wishes of wealthy grandmother Cornelia, who hired a private detective to find “dirt” on her never-married daughter in order to get custody. Needless to say, Kinsey didn’t have much exposure to many of her mother’s relatives when she was growing up.
Amidst her work on the case at hand, an invitation lands on her desk. Should she attend an upcoming family gathering and come face to face with her overbearing grandmother or should she just stay away?
A newcomer to Grafton’s series might be better served by starting with another letter and working their way up to “U is for Undertow.” This is not the authors’ best effort, and it would be a shame to base an opinion on the whole series from this one misstep.
If you’ve been a Kinsey Milhone fan for some time, then you’ll be okay with an inferior chapter in the series. If you’re like me, time spent with Kinsey is never time wasted.
U is for Undertow - By Sue Grafton - Putnam’s Sons - $27.95 - 402 pp.
Three out of five stars
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