Sunday, 26 March 2017

H is for Homicide by Sue Grafton

I've had a lot of fun reading Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone detective novels (also known as the alphabet series). Unfortunately this will be the last one I'm reporting on, at least for a while...

This is a pity because Grafton can really write. She brings her character and settings vividly to life. As Kinsey enjoys an early morning drive she tells us she feels a "jolt of pure joy". Grafton knows how to use language. She's the real McCoy and her story have freshness and great immediacy.

When Kinsey feels angry she says "I could freel the heat flash through my frame". When confronted with the dead body of a friend, she forces herself to detach from her emotions: "I pulled a mental plug." 

Similarly when she goes undercover to join a car insurance-scam gang, she has to take part in the cons. As she dupes the marks she again has to detach herself, "employing the same mental detachment I adopt when I enter a morgue".

She can also be very funny. A telephone emits a sound like a "garbage disposal grinding up a live duck."

But one of the things that has always impressed me the most about the Kinsey Millhone books is the authenticity of the protagonist and her behaviour. In this story, despite her friend being killed, she leaves the case entirely to the cops — the way a professional would.

Of course, she ends up being involved after all. As we expect she should. But it's the way that Grafton engineers this which causes the book to go seriously off the rails. 

When a woman Millhone is investigating gets arrested, our heroine attacks one of the cops so she can be arrested, too. And therefore get thrown in a cell with the woman and glean valuable information and bond with her.

This just does not fit with Millhone's common sense and low-key professionalism. When she assaults a police officer she is jeopardising her licence, in fact throwing it away forever. Never mind that she's acting undercover

Worse yet, this reckless action is utterly unmotivated. Kinsey Millhone has absolutely no reason to believe that the woman she's following will prove to be such a valuable lead as to justify such extreme behaviour....

Now, all this might make sense if our detective knew she was onto a huge and important case, and the woman was a vital link. But at this point in the story she doesn't, and couldn't.

It's exactly as if our heroine has read the outline of the novel, as if she's privy to Grafton's game plan. Eventually the narrative gets back on track, sort of. But the story never quite worked for me after that.

This was my second Kinsey Millhone disappointment, after S is for Silence, a book which went completely off the rails at the end with a rushed, unsatisfying and entirely unconvincing denouement.

Writing a long running series of crime novels is a very serious business. There is always the danger of penning a weak instalment. But if you do that, you will keenly disappoint your readers. They will feel betrayed. And they may be reluctant to pick up the next book.

This is where I currently stand with Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone series. Having been let down twice I simply don't feel the enthusiasm for these stories which I did before. In fact yesterday I took my unread Grafton's to the charity shop and got rid of them.

I'm sorry things turned out like this. I was looking forward to 26 highy enjoyable reads. I'll let you know if things change and I return to these books. But meantime, it's a salutary and sobering lesson to anyone who aspires to writing a long-running series of crime novels.

Including myself.

You can't afford to write a dud. Let alone two.

(Image credits: The covers are from Good Reads. except for the main image (the blue dog cover) which I scanned from my own copy because the Good Reads one was a bit of a mess. Oh, and I quite like the yellow Spanish cover... but can anyone tell me what the hell it's a picture of?)


  1. I remember reading the Sue Grafton alphabet mysteries as they came out, in order, up to "G is for Gumshoe," and then stopping. I'm not sure why I did. I'm fairly certain I never read H. I think it was a different problem of a long running series written across years: the author turns right when you turn left and you stop reading the series (or the author's works altogether).

    TV shows can be much the same way. I stopped watching "Doctor Who" in the middle of the Peter Davison years and never really went back until the reboot. I've since watched all of the 7th Doctor and some of the 6th Doctor episodes, but I find myself reluctant to revisit those missed 5th Doctor episodes.

    I've dropped other authors from my reading lists over the years for similar reasons, and dropped other TV shows. One book series I've sort of stopped reading was the Albert Campion series by Margery Allingham. It was more of an adventure series than a cozy mystery series like its contemporaries, but she basically aged her characters in almost-real-time and by WW2, I was a bit bored. (I did like the Peter Davison TV series they made out of 8 of the novels.)
    I'm trying doggedly to keep watching "Grimm" just because it's the last season and I want to see how it ends, but It stopped being a must-watch show some time back for me.

    But the way you described the flaw in Kinsey's actions is a good warning sign. Some authors "write into the dark" so even they don't know what the characters will do next. For those who plot their stories, though, the pitfall of putting the characters "on rails" to force them through certain scenes is a dangerous one.

  2. Kudos for many perceptive observations, not least the "write into the dark" versus "on the rails" treatment of characters. I'm contemplating a plunge into the works of Margery Allingham, but I may just read The Tiger in the Smoke which is said to be her masterpiece. Oh, and the Peter Davison years wasn't a bad time to drop out of Doctor Who! ;)


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