Sunday 22 February 2015

Q is for Quarry by Sue Grafton

My brother James and I are both admirers of the American crime writer Lawrence Block. When James told me that Block kept mentioning another writer, Sue Grafton (for instance, Block's characters were often to be found enjoying Grafton's crime novels) I decided I had to check her out. 

In selecting my first Grafton book to read, I used my tried and tested method... I waited to see what turned up cheap in charity shops or at jumble sales.

What turned up was Q is for Quarry and T is for Trespass, the 17th and 20th adventures in the alphabet-titled series featuring female private eye Kinsey Millhone (great name). 

Kinsey is a very engaging character. A bit of a slob, she tries to go jogging every day but doesn't quite make it. And she has a real junk food jones, whimpering with pleasure as she devours her quarter pounder with cheese. Besides having created an engaging and well developed character, Sue Grafton also scores highly for the scrupulous research she does. A sense of rock solid authenticity pervades her writing. I particularly like the way the retired (but still active) cops in the book always lock their guns in the trunk of their car before they go into a restaurant. Details like that convey a strong sense of everyday reality which elevates Grafton's work above the competition.

But what really I really admire is the quality of her writing, which vividly evokes the southern California coastal locale: "The surf looked forbidding, a silt-churning cold, applauded only by the sea lions who waited off shore, barking their approval."

Q is for Quarry tells the story of a cold case, a murdered teenage girl who has never been identified and whose killer remains at large. Kinsey and her partners go to the forensic unit to inspect the victims remains: "... we all fell into a respectful silence. Eighteen years after the violence of her death there was only the crackle of white paper and the snap of gloves."

I love Grafton's observations, and her similes. An unpleasant revelation is like finding "a nest of spiders in the pocket on an old overcoat." And there are admirable, punchy descriptions of characters — "I could smell whiskey fumes seeping through her pores like toxic waste."

Q is for Quarry proved to be an engrossing, methodical procedural which at the end moves towards a satisfying — and unexpected — conclusion with great efficiency and considerable excitement. After 16 previous books in this series Grafton has obviously perfected her technique. She's a master of the genre.

At the end of a post I usually find something to moan about, so what is my complaint here? Well, perhaps there's a little too much about Kinsey's family background in this story. But to regular readers this may well be catnip. Then there's the fact that both the retired cops who work with Kinsey are seriously ill, and that makes the story a bit of a downer. 

However, I doubt very much that this will be an issue with the next Kinsey Millhone adventure... which I am already eager to read. In fact, I've just started it.

 (Image credits: all the book covers are from Good Reads.)

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