Sunday 24 May 2015

T is for Trespass by Sue Grafton

I read my first  Sue Grafton novel, Q is for Quarry, a few months ago. I was pleased to have discovered an excellent series of detective stories, with a whole alphabet full of books to enjoy. T is for Trespass is another Kinsey Millhone adventure, and I suspect a particularly outstanding one because it features a memorably malevolent villain, and because Kinsey Millhone is personally involved in the mayhem — it's not just a case for her.

Kinsey is a very appealing character. She's no glamour puss or superhero; she struggles to maintain her appearance, she's addicted to junk food, constantly tries to force herself to go for her morning run and doesn't always succeed. 

But she is absolutely meticulous where her work is concerned, scrupulously typing up her notes while they're fresh in her mind. The books are set in the 1980s, so Kinsey uses a manual typewriter — indeed, in some senses, a typewriter is her chosen weapon (though she owns several guns, and can use them if compelled to).

Sue Grafton is great — and unusual in my experience — in her coverage of the very mundane activities of private investigators. Kinsey spends a large portion of the novel working on an insurance investigation and serving an eviction notice. And Grafton makes this stuff interesting. Fascinating, in fact. 

But T is for Trespass is mostly concerned with a woman calling herself Solana Rojas. She practises identity theft and is currently passing herself off as a qualified nurse. Her scam is to get a job looking after vulnerable, elderly people, asset-strip them and, once they've been picked clean, bump them off. Solana is a really nasty piece of work. 

And when Kinsey's frail elderly neighbour takes a fall — requiring hospitalisation and then home care — Solana and our hero are on a collision course. But the reader only gradually realises this. The injured neighbour doesn't seem to be a major plot point at first; lots of domestic background is normal in a Kinsey Millhone novel. So we see Solana in action, and we follow the story of the elderly neighbour, without at first seeing how they will link up.  And it's a wonderful feeling when the two plotlines begin to converge.

T is for Trespass is very different to Q is for Quarry. That earlier novel was told entirely from Kinsey's point of view and was a straightforward police procedural, very low-key. This one is a diabolically gripping suspense thriller (we know what Solana is up to long before Kinsey does), it intercuts between Solana and Kinsey, and it builds to a major action climax. In fact, it builds to two major action climaxes. Which is one of the flaws of the book. I bought the first big setpiece violent confrontation. But when the second one came along, despite being logical in terms of the plot, it just seemed too much. Too overblown. Too Hollywood. Part of the strength of the Kinsey Millhone novels is their sense of everyday reality, and that got lost here.

A worse flaw was the way, late in the story, that Kinsey and her helper suddenly knew every detail of a conversation that Solana had at a bank. They weren't present for the conversation or otherwise privy to it. This is a major hole in the plot. There is a way they could have found out — a phonecall from another character. But such a phonecall never takes place. I suspect Sue Grafton planned to write that scene, but just forgot. Which is where an editor comes in — or should come in. A good editor would spot this sort of thing. The fact that such a major error slipped through into print is rather disgraceful. The poor readers end up combing back through the book to see if they missed something. It somewhat muffles the impact of the climax.

These concerns aside, T is for Trespass is terrific. Grafton's writing is as vivid as ever. "I felt a hot rush of pain as though the injury were mine," says Kinsey when she sees the injuries her neighbour has received. And the landscape is once again strikingly evoked. "Some miles out, the channel islands were laid against the horizon in a dark, ragged line." And her gift for sardonic observation is keen as ever: "Offshore the oil rigs twinkled like a regatta with the capacity for spills." Or this description of a slob in front of the TV: "he had a beer balanced on the arm of the chair and an open bag of potato chips resting against his thigh like a faithful hound."

Three cheers for Sue Grafton and Kinsey Millhone.
(Image credits: All the covers are from Good Reads.)

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