Saturday, January 16, 2010

Review: Jack Batten on U is for Undertow by Sue Grafton

From Toronto Star --

Review: Jack Batten on U is for Undertow by Sue Grafton --

By Jack Batten Books Reporter --
Jan 10 2010 --

The ever-gracious Grafton maintains her craft, from A through U

I interviewed Sue Grafton when she was only up to "I".

The interview took place in 1992 – on the afternoon of April 22 to be specific – when Grafton came through Toronto promoting I is for Innocent, which was at the time the latest in her series of crime novels featuring the California private eye Kinsey Millhone. As her legions of fans are aware, Grafton's books have titles that march their way through the alphabet, and my interview on the subject of the "I" novel was for a CBC-TV Sunday afternoon arts show (now long defunct) under the guidance of a savvy arts producer (now long retired).

To tape the interview, the producer organized an informal studio with a cameraman, a sound guy and their equipment, in a suite at the Sutton Place Hotel. To add to the relaxed atmosphere, the microphone was tucked out of sight in a potted plant standing beside Grafton and me.

Just as I was launched into the first of my carefully scripted questions, one about the spiffy new tweed jacket that the usually non-chic Millhone wears in I is for Innocent, an electric saw began noisily buzzing in the room overhead.

The producer waved the interview to a halt and phoned down to the hotel desk about the intrusive saw. Soon the saw shut down, and the producer instructed me to again ask the question about the spiffy blazer. Half way through the question, the phone in the sitting room rang. The exasperated producer raised her arm in another stop signal and answered the phone. It was the desk downstairs telling us what we already knew, that the saw had ceased its buzzing.

The interview continued on its misbegotten way for another half hour, and throughout the shambles, Grafton remained more than agreeable. She was game, funny and answered questions she'd no doubt heard a thousand times as if they were fresh to her that day.

When the afternoon finally wound to an end, she picked up my copy of her book and wrote in it, "For Jack ... who addresses potted plants ... `could you just go back to the question about the blazer?' ... Thanks much. I had a ball. Take care. Sue Grafton."

If all of this gives you the idea that I'm predisposed to look favourably on anything Grafton writes, that would be an accurate impression. But her new book also deserves praise on the basis of merit. U is for Undertow happens to be as brisk, engaging and inventive as anything in Grafton's novels from "A" to "T".

Like all the books in the series, the new one takes place in the 1980s – April 1988 in this case – and like many of the previous books, the plot finds its beginnings in tragic and murky events several years earlier. Back in the 1960s in Kinsey Millhone's hometown of Santa Teresa (a stand-in for the real Santa Barbara), a 3-year-old girl was kidnapped; though the kidnappers were left the demanded ransom, they never picked up the money, nor was the child ever seen again. Now, in 1988, a client with fresh information about the crime hires Kinsey to reinvestigate the very cold case.

This becomes an intricate business, introducing a dozen or more disparate characters to the tangle of criminal involvements. One of Grafton's strengths lies in her skill at keeping the story on the move no matter how many good guys, bad guys and in-between guys stick their noses into the plot. In lesser narrative hands, the range of characters, the time frames and the subplots might overwhelm the book's purpose, but Grafton keeps the people of U is for Undertow coming through clearly, their motivations consistent and their actions fathomable.

For Kinsey, the dogged private eye, the sleuthing is complicated by action in her personal life, something that has gathered impact in recent books. Kinsey, 37 in 1988, has a flinty side. "I'm bitter by nature," she says in the new book. Kinsey may be a little too hard on herself, but as an orphan raised by a maiden aunt who came up short in lavishing anything like affection on the little kid, she has reason to take a jaundiced view of life.

A few novels back, Kinsey discovered relatives she never dreamed she had. They live further north in California, and they're growing increasingly insistent on making connection with the long lost or misplaced Kinsey. She's of two minds about the idea. Having been burned by two divorces, Kinsey prefers the solitary life.

Grafton stretches the tantalizing personal angle in ways that add texture to Kinsey's character. It makes her more than just another private eye on a case, and we can probably assume that she won't work out the family dilemma until the series reaches "Z."

In the meantime, reading the latest novel, a Kinsey fan can justifiably say, in Grafton's own phrase from April 22, 1992, "I had a ball."

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