Wednesday, January 30, 2019

A Farewell to Sue Grafton and Kinsey Millhone

With the publication of "A" Is for Alibi in 1982, Sue Grafton introduced Kinsey Millhone, a private detective who lived and worked in the fictional town of Santa Teresa, California. The book was a revelation at a time when most medium- to hard-boiled detective fiction was still being written by men and when the protagonists of virtually all such novels were almost always men. Grafton and Millhone were a breath of fresh air and helped transform the genre. Now, thirty-five years and twenty-four entries later, we come to the final book in the series, Y Is for Yesterday. Sue Grafton died at the end of that year and was thus unable to complete the series with the book she had once planned to title Z Is for Zero.

Although the world changed considerably between 1982 and 2017, Kinsey Millhone did not. This last book is set in 1989, only seven years after the first. Through the series, Millhone remained essentially the same character, living in the same world, and surrounded by the same circle of friends and acquaintances that she knew in 1982. A few boyfriends came and went through the series and occasionally a new relative appeared, most often briefly, but otherwise, the cast of characters was firmly fixed early on and like Kinsey, most of the other characters changed little or not at all. The books themselves grew longer but not necessarily better. The earliest books in the series were, to my mind at least, easily the best while the latter ones were largely hit or miss. And sadly Y is mostly a miss.

The book follows two parallel tracks, one set in 1979 and the other in 1989. In 1979, a group of high school students made a video tape in which a fourteen-year-old girl passed out after binge drinking and was then sexually assaulted by several boys. The tape was somehow lost and shortly thereafter a girl in the circle of friends was shot to death after another raucous party. Two of the boys in the group were sent to prison as a result of the crime.

Fast-forward to 1989 when one of the boys who participated both in the sexual assault and the killing is released from prison. No sooner is he back home than he and his parents receive a copy of the missing videotape and a note demanding $25,000. If the demand is not met the blackmailer threatens to turn the videotape over to the police, which will almost certainly result in the boy going straight back to prison, this time for the sexual assault.

The parents hire Kinsey Millhone to find the blackmailer and eliminate the threat. From that point on, the book alternates between 1979 and 1989. We watch Kinsey conduct her investigation and in a number of flashback chapters, we see the events of 1979 that lead to the death of the young woman. Several of the 1989 chapters are also devoted to the P.O.V. of the blackmailers rather than that of Millhone. If all that weren't enough, we have a third major issue, involving a man named Ned Lowe who had assaulted Kinsey in an earlier book and is now back to finish the job. So while Kinsey investigates the blackmail case, she also has to take self-defense classes and fight off Lowe on several occasions.

There's no easy way to say this, but the end result is largely a mess in desperate need of a good editor. "A" Is for Alibi was a lean, spare book that clocked in at 191 pages. The tension built from the very first paragraph and didn't release the reader until the last. Y, by comparison, is a bloated 543 pages, and there's not a single moment of real tension in the entire novel.

The chapters flashing back to 1979 add nothing of any consequence to the story and could have easily been eliminated, allowing Millhone to discover any relevant information revealed in those chapters during the course of her investigation. The whole saga of Ned Lowe also adds nothing to the story could have also been eliminated, producing a much leaner and more focused novel.

In the end, when all of this business is finally and mercifully resolved, one can only breathe a sigh of relief and feel a profound sense of regret for what might have been. I understand that a cardinal rule of reviewing is that you are supposed to review the book that the author wrote and not the one you wish she might have written. But as someone who loved the early books in this series, I've long been saddened by the course the series took or, more accurately, did not take.

I understand that Sue Grafton had millions of fans who love the character and the series exactly as they are, and I suppose that one should never argue with success. But I truly regret the fact that Grafton decided to leave Kinsey Millhone stranded in the 1980s, never to age or evolve or to confront the challenges of the years that followed. Frankly, after fifteen or sixteen books I got tired of reading about Henry, Kinsey's ninety-year-old landlord, about Rosie the Hungarian bar owner and about all the rest of these characters who, like Kinsey, never changed at all.

By comparison, I can't help but think of two of Kinsey's contemporaries, Lucas Davenport who first appeared in 1989, and Harry Bosch, who first appeared in 1992. Both of those series now exceed the number of books in the Kinsey Millhone series, and over the years those two characters have evolved and changed with the times, meeting the challenges of the changing years. They've become infinitely richer, as have the worlds and the casts of characters around them, and to my mind at least, it's a shame that Kinsey Millhone didn't have that same opportunity. At least in the early years, Sue Grafton was just as good a writer as either John Sandford or Michael Connelly, and I would love to see what she might have done with the character had she made different choices.

As a reader who's stayed with this series through thick and thin and from "A" to "Y", I'm sorry to see it end, especially on this note. I only had the opportunity to meet Sue Grafton a couple of times, but she was a very nice woman with a fabulous sense of humor, and I very much wish she would have had the chance to formally end this series on her own terms. Three stars for Y Is for Yesterday, and four sentimental stars for a long-running series and for what might have been.

No comments:

Post a Comment