Sunday 20 September 2015

S is for Silence by Sue Grafton

It's a testament to the talents of Sue Grafton that her books exert what I call 'The Dick Francis Effect'. This is what happens when the paperback which I've been using exclusively to divert myself on public transport (buses, trains, the tube) becomes so compelling that I have to read it when I'm at home, too. The effect has kicked in again, with S is for Silence.

This is another episode in the adventures of engaging female private eye Kinsey Millhone, also known as the Alphabet Series, for reasons that aren't too obscure. Similarly to T is for Trespass (yup, I'm reading them out of order; disgraceful) this novel cuts back and forth between Kinsey's investigation and a separate, but parallel, line of story. 

Once again (as in Q is for Quarry) Kinsey is working on a cold case — trying to discern the fate of a woman called Violet Sullivan, who disappeared in 1953 in her brand new purple Chevrolet Bel Air coupe. The parallel narrative depicts the actual events of 1953, told in the third person.

This is a rather complex story due to the number of characters involved, and it's very difficult to keep all of them straight in the mind of the reader. It is particularly problematical because there's a strong suspicion that Violet has been murdered, and the suspects are all cut from similar cloth: they are all businessmen, all from the same small community, and all were sleeping with her. 

The novel would have benefited tremendously from a list of characters (a dramatis personae) at the front of the book — hey, there's no shame in it. Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon includes one in some editions, and it's the greatest detective novel of all time.

As usual, Sue Grafton's splendid descriptive powers are on display. She brings the environment of the story decisively to life: "bougainvillea grew... in a tangle of blossoms the shape and colour of cooked shrimp";  "the air seemed fresh as a florist's shop". And there's a fantastic bit where the car which Violet disappeared in is disinterred from its burial place. It looks "like some hibernating beast whose rest had been disturbed".

Grafton is also great at describing states of mind. "I felt my attention narrow like a cat's at the sound of a little mousie scratching in the wall." Or when Kinsey becomes frustrated with the difficulty of the case, "It's like working on a jigsaw puzzle without the picture on the box."

Where the book falls down somewhat is in the 1950s sequences. These feature rather too many anachronisms. People back then didn't say things like "He'd scoped out the house". "Scoped out" only began to come into use in the 1980s. Worse yet is "I need to get the hell out of dodge" — a phrase which only really took off in the 1990s.

(If you're wondering how I know this stuff, there's a fantastic tool on Google called the Ngram Viewer.)

In other areas, though, Grafton has done her research scrupulously. I thought I'd caught her out with a mention of Seventeen magazine. But it turns out, astonishingly, Seventeen began publication in 1944. I didn't even know they had teenagers in 1944.

And then there's Grafton's wonderful gift for describing behaviour — "They were like two dogs tugging on opposing ends of a towel" — and, especially, physical states of extreme emotion: "Jake sat as though shot, his heart pounding at he shock"; "Cold seeped up from the floor and climbed his frame"; "there was a sensation in my chest like a faraway electrical storm." This is great writing. 

Sue Grafton is also strong on characterisation and psychologically acute; there is a terrific, satisfying scene involving a doormat of a female character finally turning on her bullying "friend". Unfortunately this big dramatic moment hinges on referring to a character called Phillip —  but who the hell is Phillip? I assume he'd been mentioned earlier in the novel, and I suppose I could have gone combing through it in search of him. On the other hand, I could always infer who he was. But I really shouldn't have to do either of these things. Clarity is crucial. (Other people were pissed off about Phillip, too.)

Clarity is even more important at the very end of a book. Grafton has developed a technique of finishing her stories with a very swift, no-nonsense burst of action. Often in the course of just a couple of pages. There's nothing wrong with this. Ian Fleming used to wrap up his James Bond novels in the same way and it makes for a brisk, bracing conclusion — in fact it can be downright exhilarating. 

But the Bond novels aren't whodunits. Whereas S is for Silence is very much a whodunit. And for a mystery to have a satisfying ending the reader has to fully comprehend the solution to the puzzle. I am not arguing for a lengthy explanation by the detective sipping a whisky in front of the fireplace, in the Golden Age tradition (though there's nothing necessarily wrong with that).

Unfortunately S is for Silence reveals the identity of the killer at the end — but it doesn't disclose his motive. No doubt this was obvious to Grafton. Sadly not to me. Again, I could think it through and come up with a hypothesis. 

But, again, I shouldn't have to.

(Image credits: All the book covers are from Good Reads. The edition I read is the one with the flowers on the cover — and those hydrangeas are rather an important, and very satisfying, clue.)

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