Saturday, February 13, 2010

Review of U Is for Undertow by Sue Grafton

From London Free Press --

By Joan Barfoot --

By: Ron Wynn, --
29th January 2010 --

Just five more novels and Sue Grafton can retire the alphabet.

Starting with A Is For Alibi, Grafton has book by book worked her way through the ABCs of crime fiction, in cahoots with her protagonist, Kinsey Millhone. Occasionally a novel has faltered, but generally Grafton (and Millhone) have held themselves to high and satisfying standards.

And they do so reasonably well again in U Is For Undertow, a smartly complicated mystery - several mysteries, really - held together as usual by the often-dishevelled, contrary-minded and stubborn Millhone.

Despite the many years of her career in print, Kinsey never has to age much - she's 38 in U Is For Undertow, a novel set mainly in 1988, with back-references to events that occurred 21 years earlier.

So there's no bother with grey hair and creaky limbs, or with tools like cellphones, text messaging or DNA analysis - just the traditional foot-soldiering private investigator grind of asking a whole lot of questions and not giving up.

This time the case begins when a young man named Michael Sutton arrives at Kinsey's office with a strange story of seeing two men burying something in a back yard around the time of his sixth birthday, 21 years back.

He's now convinced that what he saw was the burial of a little girl who'd been kidnapped and presumed dead. A cop, intrigued by the tale but unwilling to reopen the investigation on the basis of Michael's vague childhood memory, has sent him to Kinsey.

Besides the difficulties of looking into such a long-ago crime, Kinsey learns that Michael has his own credibility problems, having wrecked his relationships with his family over false abuse allegations instigated by a therapist.

Still, when she tracks down the site of the alleged burial, police agree to dig it up - to find only the bones of a dog, complete with collar and tags.

That would end matters for most people, but Kinsey tracks down the dog's owner and its long-retired vet. She also learns that the dead child was not the only one kidnapped around the same time - another was restored to her adoptive parents when they paid a ransom.

Grafton's tale spins around families - men who were once unhappy boys, aging parents with unsatisfactory offspring, Michael Sutton's hostile siblings, and not least, her own recently discovered relatives who keep trying to bind her to them.

It's an interesting quirk - or comment - that a couple of the more stable former children, Kinsey included, were responsible in many ways for raising themselves, absent proper parents.

Grafton is given to plumping out pages with excess detail, and by the last 80 to 100 pages, the killers' identities aren't exactly hard to discern. But her characters are vivid and real, and their troubles and sorrows engaging.

Plus, more violent death and menace ramp up the suspense to the end.

Grafton has probably wondered a few times over the years what she was thinking when she set out to work her way through the alphabet, book after book, but even with five more letters to go, it's safe to say she and Kinsey Millhone have together created an honorable body of work.

Joan Barfoot is a novelist living in London.

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