The first entry in this series, A is for Alibi, appeared in 1982. It's a taut 192 pages long, written close to the bone. The suspense builds from the first page to the last and pays off with a great climax. It was a fantastic introduction to the Kinsey Millhone series. By comparison, X is 498 pages long and feels more like 698. It wanders all over the landscape; it's filled with boring minutia, and it's about as suspenseful as watching paint dry.
As the book opens, Kinsey is hired by a woman to find the son that the woman says she gave up for adoption years earlier. Kinsey assumes that the case will be a piece of cake and charges the woman a minimal fee. It then turns out that the woman has paid Kinsey in marked bills and that things are not at all what they appear to be.
Meanwhile, Kinsey is still attempting to wrap up the affairs of an old colleague, Pete Wolinsky. Pete's widow has received a demand from the IRS for some old documents and Kinsey agrees to look for them. In doing so, she discovers a mystery that she feels compelled to track down, even though no one is paying her to do so, either with marked bills or anything else.
And finally, Kinsey's elderly but still spry neighbor, eighty-nine year-old Henry Pitts, is concerned about the drought that is plaguing California. He's gone slightly nuts trying to conserve every drop of water possible, even to the extent of tearing out his lawn and ripping up all his shrubs. If that weren't bad enough, an elderly couple has moved into the house next door, and Kinsey feels that they are taking advantage of Henry's kindness by having him to their grocery shopping for them and a variety of other things.
The story meanders about, dealing first with one of these issues and then with another. None of them is remotely interesting, and the reader is subjected to what seem like endless discussions about irrigation, gray water and other such things when dealing with Henry's water problems. The book is filled with Kinsey's observations about this, that and the other thing, none of which does anything to advance the plot.
As one example, Kinsey meets an elderly church secretary with curly hair, which for some reason reminds her of of the ads she saw as a child for Toni Home Permanent kits. This sparks a very long paragraph about home permanents back in the day, which is enough to make a reader want to tear his or her hair out. The book is filled with incidents like this and one can only wonder whether Grafton has now reached a point in her career where she can demand that no one edit her work. Certainly any competent editor would have cut out about a third of this one. A competent editor would have probably also told Grafton to lose at least one of the distracting plot lines and to tighten up the book and create some suspense. But alas, no one did.
My other principal concern about this and the other later books in the series is that Grafton chose to leave the series set in the 1980s. (We're now up to 1989.) As a practical matter, the setting has stayed the same; all of the characters have remained in place; none of them has changed in any significant way, and they've all become pretty boring. Henry doesn't seem to be baking as much as he did back in 1982, but he's still basically the same guy, as are all of the other ancillary characters.
I can certainly understand that when a series is thirty-five years old and you're twenty-four books into it, it might be hard to find something fresh to do with the characters. But Grafton made it doubly hard on herself by leaving the series--and the characters--essentially frozen in time. The truth is that most of the recent books in the series are thus interchangeable and immediately forgettable.
If it seems like I'm being hard on this book, it's only because I was such a huge fan of this series in the beginning. Reading A Is for Alibi was a revelation back in the early 1980s, when there were virtually no serious female P.I.s and when Kinsey Millhone was a ground breaking protagonist.
Certainly one can't argue with success. Grafton has accumulated millions of fans and made gazzillions of dollars writing this series. Still, when I think back to the promise of the early books in this series, I can only be personally disheartened by what it's become.
2.5 stars, rounded up to three only because I used to like this series so much. And if you want to read a really great book featuring a tough, smart female P.I. set in the 1980s, don't read this one. Do yourself a favor and find a copy of A Is for Alibi. Believe me, you'll thank me.