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  • Jeff Somers 6:30 pm on 2018/04/24 Permalink
    Tags: , kinsey millhone, kinsey scale, , sue grafton   

    The 10 Most Essential Sue Grafton Mysteries 

    In the realm of fictional private investigators, Kinsey Millhone stands apart for a number of reasons. She’s a woman, first of all, though that was a lot more unusual in 1982, when Sue Grafton launched her bestselling series of alphabetically ordered mystery novels. She’s also iconoclastic and minimalist, preferring her tiny apartment and a steady diet of junk food to the lavish jet-set lifestyle of some protagonists we could name. And Grafton aged her deliberately over the course of 25 books, planning to have Millhone celebrate her 40th birthday in book 26.

    Sadly, Grafton passed away before the final book could be written (today, in fact, would’ve been her 78th birthday). But that still leaves 25 books in the “Alphabet” series, covering letters A through X. If you’re just coming to the series now, that number might be a bit intimidating, but you needn’t let that deter you—the series is remarkably consistent in terms of quality, so reading all 25 is no chore, but despite Grafton’s decision to allow Millhone to move forward in time, the books aren’t really dependent on one another. You could read the 10 best—presented below in series order—and come away with a good grasp of the character (and, we’ll bet, a desire to go back and fill in the gaps).

    A is for Alibi
    It really is best to start at the beginning. Grafton’s first novel wasn’t an instant hit, and the plot isn’t as airtight as later installments. But the character of Kinsey Millhone leaps off the page fully-formed, a spirited woman who thinks for herself and cares more about justice than about earning a paycheck. Most of her foibles and tics are on display here, from her love of snacks to her disdain for grooming (she cuts her own hair and doesn’t do a great job), and Grafton’s first moment of true genius comes at the ending, which sees Millhone solving the main murder while also discovering she’s gotten a lot of other things entirely wrong—a rare case of a reader having a cake (the case is solved) and eating it too (there’s one more shocking twist in store).

    B is for Burglar
    Grafton perfected her concept in the second book, which has a much stronger plot. Millhone is hired to find a missing person, but when she goes to Florida to check out the woman’s vacation home she finds a man living there, claiming to be a tenant—a tenant no one knew about. Grafton establishes Millhone’s intelligence and grit as she enters a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with a killer, showing us everything that makes the character unforgettable but avoiding making her into a collection of quirks. She’s a butt-kicking, mystery-solving machine in a story that never slows down.

    D is for Deadbeat
    Any time a private detective is handed cash, people are going to crawl out of the woodwork, and Millhone is no exception. Asked by a drunk to give $25,000 to the survivor of a car crash he caused while driving while intoxicated, Millhone is determined to honor his wishes even after he turns up dead—but finds herself beset by ex-wives, children, and the drug dealers the money was stolen from in the first place. Although Grafton sometimes loses track of her own plot, she manages to pull it all back together for another story that serves to strengthen the fundamentals of Kinsey’s character and outline the rules of the seedy universe she operates in. Plus, the book’s just a lot of fun.

    H is for Homicide
    This book represents the point at which Grafton really got into a groove with her character, universe, and plotting. In a story that involves insurance fraud, the murder of someone close to our protagonist, and Kinsey going undercover to crack the case, Grafton finds plenty of opportunities to have a little fun, and she makes hay with all of them, introducing a cast of side characters that are fascinating but believable, all of whom contribute to a strong plot filled with great twists and turns. Grafton found an ideal balance between quirk and humor on the one hand and a seriously tense mystery on the other.

    J is for Judgment
    Hands down, this is one of the best cases Kinsey Millhone ever gets involved with. A wealthy banker disappears in an apparent suicide after his not-exactly-legitimate financial empire begins to collapse. Five years later, he’s officially declared dead, and his wife gets a huge insurance payout. When the banker is then spotted in Mexico, Kinsey’s hired to look into the mess. One of the strengths of this one is how focused it is on that central case; while the forays into Kinsey’s neighbors, landlord, and family that crop up in other books are entertaining and sometimes illuminating for the character, the clarity of purpose in this novel is energizing.

    K is for Killer
    Probably the darkest of the Millhone novels, and one of the best. Kinsey is suffering from insomnia, an affliction that starts off as a minor and somewhat humorous problem but develops into a debilitating weakness as sleep deprivation makes her start to doubt her own memory and perceptions. The case involves a dead body that lay undiscovered for so long a cause of death cannot be determined. Kinsey quickly figures out the dead woman was an under-the-radar prostitute, opening up a wide list of possible murder scenarios—and a long list of potential killers. With Kinsey’s confidence at an unusual low ebb, it’s the first time the reader can’t be 100 percent certain she will prevail at the end.

    M is for Malice
    A wealthy man, a junkie son who’s the black sheep of the family, a last will and testament that cuts the son out of the inheritance in favor of his three brothers—so far, so straightforward. But everything goes hinky when the father dies and the will goes missing. Kinsey is hired to locate the son, long banished due to his drug habit. When she digs him up, he’s clean and sober and seems to honestly regret his past behavior—and Kinsey finds his siblings to be unpleasant. What should be a clear-cut resolution to a simple problem quickly goes sideways, and Kinsey slowly unravels a dense mystery on her way to figuring who she can believe—if anyone. This one would rightly be a bestseller even without the charm of Kinsey Millhone.

    N is for Noose
    This novel features Kinsey’s off-center charm in spades. Hired by a police detective’s widow to pick up the cold case he’d spent his life trying to solve, Kinsey discovers that the small town he lived in is more or less united in the opinion that the matter should remain a mystery, and that his widow is nothing but a muckraker. Kinsey initially agrees, seeing nothing to justify the detective’s obsession—until she’s brutally assaulted in what seems a clear attempt to run her off. Anyone who’s ever read a detective novel knows the best way to keep a PI on a case is to try to threaten them, and Kinsey dives into the case with renewed passion. The small town characters are expertly sketched, and making Kinsey the fish-out-of-water sheds new light on her character and reminds even long-time fans why she’s one of the best fictional sleuths ever imagined.

    O is for Outlaw
    While it’s not necessary for readers to know all the details of Kinsey’s past and family in order to enjoy the books, it’s great fun every time we make a new discovery. This book is a great way to catch up on most of those details, because the case Kinsey takes on is more or less her own life. She stumbles onto evidence that proves she was 100 percent wrong about one of the reasons she used to justify leaving her husband. The revelation forces Kinsey to reexamine her decisions and dig back into her past. Along the way, we learn an awful lot about Kinsey Millhone’s journey into her late 30s.

    The really sad part about Sue Grafton’s passing is that even at the tail end of the alphabet, she was still doing some of her best work. X is a complex book that slowly twists together three narrative arcs: the main mystery, in which Kinsey is hired by a woman to search for a recently released convict who might be her long-lost son; Kinsey’s kindhearted efforts to help a peer’s widow organize his case files, leading her into surprising danger; and the matter of a frightening man who might be a serial murderer—and who is definitely obsessed with Kinsey. It’s a tightly-written thriller that delivers on all three plot threads, and ends with a few details unresolved, leading us directly into Y is for Yesterday, the unintended final book (a book also worth reading—it’s not only Kinsey’s swan song, but a pretty great installment).

    Kinsey Millhone will never see her 40th birthday, and the world will never get another Sue Grafton book. Both facts are tragedies—but at least we have 25 novels with which to celebrate both of their lives.

    The post The 10 Most Essential Sue Grafton Mysteries appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Molly Schoemann-McCann 5:00 pm on 2017/07/31 Permalink
    Tags: crime scene, glass houses, i know a secret, , , , , , on her majesty's frightfully secret service, peter robinson, rhys bowen, sleeping int he ground: an inspector banks novel, sue grafton, , , tess garritsen, the good daughter, the paris spy, the room of white fire, y is for yesterday   

    August’s Best Mysteries 

    Soaring temps make many of us turn to fast-paced, high-stakes mysteries and thrillers where the pages turn so quickly that they create a refreshing light breeze on your face. Summer may be on the wane, but some of our biggest mystery series are just heating up. Don’t miss these brilliant new books by heavy hitters like Sue Grafton, Louise Penny, and powerhouse father and son duo Jonathan and Jesse Kellerman.

    Y is For Yesterday (Kinsey Millhone Series #25), by Sue Grafton
    Grafton’s famous Kinsey Millhone series is reaching the end of the alphabet, to the despair of legions of fans. Y is For Yesterday travels back to 1979, when four private school boys brutally assaulted a classmate—and the attack was filmed. The ensuing investigation resulted in the conviction of two of the perpetrators, although the main instigator behind the attack disappeared. Nearly twenty years later, one of the attackers is released from prison. Fritz McCabe is in pretty terrible shape, and he’s now being held a virtual prisoner by his parents. When he receives a copy of the video of the attack along with a demand for ransom, McCabe’s parents swing into action and consult with Kinsey Millhone, who is soon drawn into their convoluted family drama. In the meantime she’s also got a sociopath with a deep grudge to contend with. Fans know it’s just another day in the life of one of the best investigators in the genre.

    Glass Houses (Chief Inspector Gamache Series #13), by Louise Penny
    A mysterious figure has appeared in the idyllic village of Three Pines, standing alone and stock still in the freezing November sleet. As the villagers, including Chief Superintendent Armand Gamache, grow increasingly perturbed and even frightened, the figure remains. Soon after it finally disappears, a body turns up, which is very probably not a coincidence, and it falls to Gamache to discover whether the killing is in fact a terrible retribution. Later that summer, the accused stands trial, but Gamache is forced to face the consequences of the actions he took during those fateful days in November. The 13th novel in Penny’s incomparable series ratchets up the tension to an almost unbearable degree.

    Crime Scene, by Jonathan Kellerman and Jesse Kellerman
    Clay Edison was a star athlete in his day, but he’s turned to a life of crim…inal investigation. Determining the cause of death of psychology professor Walter Rennert, found at the bottom of the stairs, seems like an open and shut affair at first. But when Rennert’s daughter, Tatiana, convinces him to take a closer look at the case, he begins to have serious doubts. It turns out that Walter Rennert had a checkered past, one involving a dead coed, and his days might have been numbered. Add to the mix a suspiciously similar death suffered by a colleague of Rennert’s, and you have a recipe for Something is Not Quite Right Here. When he and Tatiana begin to grow closer, Clay’s determination to track down he murderer increases. But he’s going to find himself venturing into some very dark places to do so.

    Exposed (Rosato & DiNunzio Series #5), by Lisa Scottoline
    The twists and turns come fast and furious in this gripping legal drama. What seems at first like an open and shut case—a man fired from a company when his daughter’s medical expenses shoot through the roof—soon pits partner against partner in a game of cat and mouse that turns bare-knuckle and threatens to tear the firm apart. And when murder becomes part of the equation, things spiral even further out of control.

    The Good Daugher, by Karin Slaughter
    If you haven’t read Karin Slaughter yet, The Good Daughter is the perfect novel to jump onboard with…and if you’re a fan of fast-paced, gripping, and impossible to forget thrillers (see: the incredible Coptown), you should definitely be reading Karin Slaughter. In her latest standalone novel, Charlotte Quinn fought back against a harrowing childhood trauma by following in her father’s footsteps and becoming an attorney. But when another attack occurs nearly three decades later, Charlie is powerless to stop a flood of terrible memories from that tragic incident, which destroyed her happy family and left her mother dead. You won’t know where this one is going, but one thing is for sure: you’ll follow this author anywhere.

    I Know a Secret (Rizzoli & Isles Series #12), by Tess Garritsen
    What do a collection of gruesomely murdered saints, an unrepentant serial killer (who is also Maura Isles’ mother) with a dark secret, and a pair of victims who suffered similarly grisly fates all have in common? They’re just some of the details that make the twelfth novel in the compulsively readable Rizzoli & Isles series the kind of book you won’t want to put down, even if you desperately need a sweet tea refill. Medical examiner Maura Isles and detective Jane Rizzoli of the Boston PD are the kind of tough investigators who can handle an alarming body count (of bodies that are in hair-raising condition), but with a killer on the loose who might be using a horror film as inspiration, this time they may have met their match.

    The Paris Spy (Maggie Hope Series #7), by Susan Elia MacNeal
    History buffs who also love nail-biting mysteries—especially those fascinated by the WWII era—your perfect late-summer read is here! The seventh novel in the Maggie Hope Series finds the legendary code-breaker and spy navigating the treacherous waters of Nazi-occupied France, where she is tasked with trying to discover a traitor among ranks of the terrifyingly powerful, deep in enemy territory. After a narrow escape from a concentration camp, Maggie’s half sister, Elise, has disappeared, and Maggie is desperate to find her—but not certain she even wants to be found. On top of everything, the Allied invasion of France is in the works, but a crucial agent has been captured, and Churchill is relying on Maggie’s abilities to help plan D-Day. This historically rich spy thriller is a real nail-biter.

    The Room of White Fire, by T. Jefferson Parker
    Former cop, former marine, current private investigator and fairly damaged individual Roland Ford has been assigned to track down one Clay Hickman, an escaped mental patient who is also a veteran of the Air Force. His tough military past and the recent loss of his wife give Roland some insight into how best to locate Clay, but things are complicated by the very different accounts he’s receiving of what Clay is really like, and what he’s actually capable of. And when his interests in Clay’s doctor, the inscrutable Paige Hulet, become a little more than professional, the search grows more personal and the stakes become dangerously high.

    On Her Majesty’s Frightfully Secret Service (Royal Spyness Series #11), by Rhys Bowen
    The delightful adventures of Lady Georgiana Rannoch continue as she finds herself in the thick of several worrisome situations. For one thing, Darcy is off on a secret mission, so she is left to travel alone to Italy to assist her friend Belinda, who is getting ready to give birth. And her cousin the queen has called upon her to spy at a house party in Italy at which the Prince of Wales is expected, along with the horrible Mrs. Simpson. Of course, Lady Georgiana’s Italian holiday is all but ruined when one of the guests is murdered—and above it all, a Nazi threat looms and the country teeters on the brink of war. A frothy, ebullient comedy of manners that never fails to entertain, the Royal Spyness Series is filled with twists and turns, unforgettable characters, and highly amusing (and often hazardous) situations.

    Sleeping in the Ground: An Inspector Banks Novel, by Peter Robinson
    A horrific attack shatters a peaceful wedding, but when the culprit is apprehended, everyone assumes that the terrible tragedy has been put to rest. Everyone except for Alan Banks, that is. He’s convinced that something about the whole thing is not quite right, and the case is not completely closed. And although he’s not thrilled to be assigned to work with Jenny Fuller, a forensic psychologist with whom he has a complicated relationship, he’s glad for the opportunity to dig deeper into this case. But the deeper he digs, the more horrors he unearths. Peter Robinson writes the kinds of thrillers that will keep you turning pages late into the night.

    What mysteries are keeping you up late this month?

    The post August’s Best Mysteries appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Jeff Somers 8:52 pm on 2015/11/16 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , , , sue grafton, the pursuit of justice   

    The Socioeconomics of Being a Private Detective 

    Writing fiction is a lot like playing chess: very few people actually understand how it’s done, and most seem to think it involves randomly moving things around and shouting out words (checkmate!). There are a finite number of moves, pieces, openings, and endgames, and the trick isn’t to invent a whole new way of playing, but rather to find creative ways to use the existing tropes and conventions.

    This is obviously more applicable in genre writing; genres bring with them a complex set of rules, and insist you at least pay tribute to them. Literary or mainstream fiction might not be able to include the odd vampire bowler as a character, but it can more easily play with traditional narrative and structure (please note: more vampire bowler characters, please). The more specific the genre, the tighter the rules, and sometimes these rules are a bit surprising, even perplexing. And detective fiction has one of the most bewildering tropes of any genre—the way it approaches the socioeconomics of being a private detective, inasmuch as private detective can be accepted as a real, actual career choice, a way people might reasonably expect to make money and earn a living. Because in most stories involving private detectives—that is, people who apparently take money in exchange for using their skills to investigate things the public sector can’t or apparently doesn’t care about—the detectives are either hilariously poor or obnoxiously rich.

    He’d Just Look at Your Heels and Know the Score

    It’s kind of remarkable, once you notice it. Almost every private detective throughout history is either nearly destitute, independently wealthy, or appears to exist in a universe where money has no meaning whatsoever. On the rich end, let’s start with Sherlock Holmes. Since he has no visible form of support, and chooses many of his cases from interest and curiosity instead of necessity (Holmes does not, after all, accept any boring cases he might solve in, say, five minutes, pocketing a nice payday without even getting out of bed), we must assume he’s moderately wealthy—possibly because he has solved a few high-profile cases for wealthy patrons, possibly because Sherlock Holmes is no doubt capable of embezzling billions without being caught. Either way, the man is rich enough that he can afford a serious cocaine habit while rarely leaving his apartment.

    There are plenty of rich detectives—sometimes referred to as Gentleman Detectives. Lord Peter Wimsey, an English Peer so laden with old money he can barely move under his own power, solves crimes solely out of passion, because he won’t have to leave the estate any time soon and get a job. Nick Charles of The Thin Man fame was wealthy, by virtue of marrying heiress Nora. In the modern day, we have examples like Stone Barrington, born into money, dispossessed, then reattaining his wealth as he squeezes detecting and investigation into a busy schedule of cocktails, learning new ways to knot neckties, and memorizing wines according to bouquet. Even Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, a nosy, gossipy old woman in a small English town, is obviously a woman of means, although she apparently never worked a day in her life. While not precisely rich, Marple can afford her modest lifestyle without any effort, never worries over bills, and investigates her crimes out of burning curiosity, a belief in the awful nature of mankind, and because solving the puzzle entertains her.

    On the other end of the spectrum is the classic, possibly more well-known private detective trope: the downtrodden, unlucky gumshoe who’s always fleeing creditors, always insisting on being paid in cash, and who often pursues his cases more out of desperation or economic necessity than any sense of justice. Most of Hammett’s and Chandler’s classic detectives would fall into this category, as would Easy Rawlins, Robert Parker’s Spenser, and Kinsey Millhone from Sue Grafton’s alphabet series. This doesn’t mean the detective character is necessarily destitute, or that they have no sense of honor or duty to their community. It just means that, unlike their tonier counterparts, they pursue their detecting out of economic need. Even a detective like Nero Wolfe, who enjoys a rich lifestyle, is presented as a man who takes on cases solely for a (very large) payout at the end, enabling him to maintain that lifestyle, since he’s not a British Peer sitting on a mountain of money so old it has grown mossy.

    It also doesn’t mean the detective in question cares about money at all. Jack Reacher is essentially an indigent private detective who takes on whatever cases call to him. He doesn’t take cases as jobs, doesn’t expect or accept fees for his services for the most part, and of course lives more or less as a disciplined homeless person, traveling from town to town owning nothing. Nevertheless he fits snugly into the bottom half of the Private Detective Income Scale as a man who has no steady employment, no assets, and no possessions (in fact a man who has an almost pathological fear of such things).

    In between these two extremes are the Outliers, the investigators and detectives who exist completely outside the framework of economics. As outliers, these characters are often not even, strictly speaking, private investigators, but rather people who find themselves tracking clues and solving mysteries for their own reasons. Jason Bourne, for example, is a man who investigates his own life and the implications of his past because he has no choice—but this also renders him a detective of sorts, chasing clues and interrogating witnesses, even while he apparently exists in a world where the basic necessities of life are free—or at least a world where amnesia-stricken superspies routinely hide thousands of dollars for future use. However it’s justified, one thing is clear: Jason Bourne never once sits down to count his money and make a budget, because it just doesn’t matter.

    The Otherness of Private Eyes

    The pattern’s pretty clear: private detectives are either wealthy or of independent means, poor and motivated by their constant economic desperation, or living in a fictional universe where their personal finances don’t really matter much. There are very few examples of detectives who live comfortably. Even characters like Kinsey Millhone, who live fairly comfortable lives, do so via unusual choices—Millhone lives in a tiny apartment and leads a life of extreme modesty when it comes to finances. Detectives in this category are just as motivated by money; it’s just that they’ve downsized their lives to match their meager incomes.

    There’s a good reason for this sort of economic pattern in detective stories: private detective characters need to be the Other in order to function properly.

    Most people work pretty hard to avoid being drawn into other people’s drama. We all have plenty of our own, and we’re generally more than happy to walk past things that aren’t our business. Most people also lack the time to investigate random crimes and seek justice for the downtrodden—we’ve got mortgages to pay and kids to raise and video games to play. In other words, investigating crimes and mysteries is decidedly not a mainstream activity, for both practical concerns—our time is committed elsewhere—and because society and civilization are built on a few basic supports, one of which is simple: everyone minds their own business. In order to be an effective investigator, you have to undermine this basic premise of civilization, because investigating isn’t just poking your nose into other people’s business, it’s a form of vigilantism.

    As a result, private detectives are Others. They exist just slightly outside the boundaries of society in order to be able to break these fundamental rules. This in turn allows them to break other rules, as well, including the simple breaking of laws and even the breaking of limbs as they attempt to chase down the truth. In modern society, there are a few ways of being the Other: you can be a little crazy, which works to a limited extent for a private investigator (see Sherlock Holmes again) but can ultimately be limiting because the private detective also has to be able to function within society to a great enough extent to have access to it; an insane, muttering person might be a brilliant detective on basic ability but is incapable of digging deeply into the lives around them simply because they cannot gain access to homes and businesses and are incapable of establishing trust with potential witnesses. The most effective way in the modern world to depict someone as an outsider without resorting to mental instability or extreme eccentricity is to depict them as economically Other, removed from the normal flow of income and outlay—either as desperately insolvent and thus pushed to being the Other out of necessity, or as wildly affluent and thus beyond caring about the negative consequences of their investigations. Money is a classic and easily accepted motivation for all sorts of terrible or unusual behavior, after all.

    The Windfall Cometh

    While economic desperation works pretty well as a motivator for private detectives as well as a character trait (as the explanations for being broke and in need of cash can range from personality defects to laziness, philosophical considerations, or simple bad luck), it can cause other problems for the writer, of course, like explaining in every book or story how the character continues to survive—or at least not suffer from scurvy or some other debilitating disease stemming from malnutrition—when they are constantly broke. Even if the character isn’t necessarily destitute but simply working hard to make a living, the mysteries they investigate often call for resources that aren’t quite believable when the character is depicted as swimming in the shallow end of the income pool. Even if the specifics of a case aren’t particularly resource-heavy, if your private eye is supposed to be poor and working hard to make a living, having them embroiled in a single case for weeks or months at a time can stretch believability. You can’t be dirt broke and yet paying your bills for months while you dig into a single mystery, after all.

    Enter The Windfall, a frequent occurrence in serials involving the downtrodden investigator. The Windfall is simple: it’s a lump of money the character chances into that serves to solve their immediate financial problems and frees them to continue their investigations without worrying about mundane details like how to afford food—without changing their basic situation or personality.

    Sometimes The Windfall happens in the character’s backstory, explaining how they’ve come to be a Gentleman (or Gentlewoman) Detective, but most often it happens after a few books have established the character, their lifestyle and universe, and the fact of their poverty begins to drag down stories because the author has to constantly justify it, subvert it, or ignore it in order to get the character into the situations they need to be in. Kinsey Millhone gets one in Grafton’s Alphabet series, a lump of money she puts in the bank and ignores because she is “miserly and cheap” and has no desire to travel or live the high life—a lump of money she specifically states allows her not to worry when her client list gets a little short. Jack Reacher, after years of being a near-penniless drifter, gets a windfall, too, though he has an even more extreme reaction to the money, maintaining his drifter lifestyle. But it allows him to have enough money to support himself despite not really working a job of any kind or even regularly leveraging his services as investigator and butt-kicker into regular paychecks (although he helps himself to ill-gotten gains from time to time).

    The Windfall excuses the writer from having to prop up the Otherness of their character, who by book number four or five or ten has been well-established in the role. An inheritance allows them to avoid the distraction of how they pay for their room and board and concentrate on stepping outside the boundaries of normal life in order to pursue justice with the single-minded energy most of us lack.

    And that pursuit of justice is a form of insanity, which is why we love these characters so much. Most of us can’t be bothered to investigate even the simple mysteries of everyday life—where that sock went, what that noise outside is, how in the world there is still such a thing as Miley Cyrus. Investigating the bigger things is simply beyond us, and that’s why we need the Other—the independently wealthy or absolutely destitute Other who has literally nothing else to drive them but the pursuit of justice.

  • Jeff Somers 7:16 pm on 2015/07/30 Permalink
    Tags: , kinsey millhone series, , , , sue grafton   

    5 Reasons X Is Sue Grafton at Her Best 

    After 23 novels, Sue Grafton’s “Alphabet” series, featuring scrappy California private investigator Kinsey Millhone, is showing no signs of age. Instead, Grafton’s latest, Xwhich dispenses with her usual “… is for” title formula for the simple reason that she couldn’t make it workis one of the most anticipated mysteries of the year. This is thanks not only to Grafton’s skill as a writer, but to her fictional creation Kinsey Millhone, one of those rare characters who feels very much like a friend or neighbor, not a paper creation.

    X finds Millhone in 1989, thirty-eight years old, and financially flush. Grafton’s decision to have her heroine age slowly but predictably over the course of the books means the series has been as much a biography of Millhone as a bunch of mysteries; by now loyal readers could conceivably know more about Millhone’s family, friends, habits, and opinions than they do those of their own loved ones. And all that combines to make X an assured, gripping mystery displaying zero signs of exhaustion or lack of ideas. In fact, when the Alphabet Series is assessed and ranked when it closes with Z is for Zero (scheduled for 2019), X will likely sit very close to the top.

    The Kinsey way
    When we first met Kinsey Millhone, she was 32, and one of the great things about settling in with X is that you can appreciate how the character has evolved yet stayed true to her inception. Millhone remains a self-sufficient, intelligent investigator who has a good life, a life she appreciates and works hard for. She still struggles to do the right thing, and sometimes to know what that is, and she still loves a pickle-and-peanut-butter sandwich. But this is also a Kinsey who is subtly more mature, subtly wiser than the one we met more than 20 books ago. Grafton’s ability to inch her character forward in time without losing control of the setting and personality of her creation is amazing in its skill.

    The complex mysteries
    That’s right, mysteries plural, because this fantastic novel has Kinsey embroiled in three investigations (two more or less official, and one driven by Millhone’s instincts) that are all intriguing. In one, a wealthy woman hires her to find the son she gave up for adoption decades before—only for Kinsey to realize everything the woman told her is a lie. In the second, she’s asked by a former colleague’s widow to look through some old files and stumbles upon some strange threads from a dead case that might be leading her toward one of the most frightening and dangerous men she’s ever had to deal with. Finally, an elderly couple who move into her apartment complex just feel…off to Kinsey, and she can’t help but apply her almost automatic investigative skills to them.

    The assured setting
    One of the benefits of Grafton’s commitment to her time period is the way Millhone’s universe gets deeper with every new book. By this point, appearances by Rosie, Henry, and others are special treats for long-time readers. For newcomers, Grafton’s skill is such that it still works, because these characters have a lived-in, been-there feel that’s earned; Kinsey’s easy patter and patterns feel like relationships and behaviors she’s lived with for years, not necessarily because you’ve been reading about them for decades, but because Grafton writes them with an assurance and ease many younger writers strive for.

    A real sense of dread
    Grafton’s an old pro, and she knows how to build tension. As Millhone investigates a list of women’s names and addresses written in code by a former investigator for her mentors Ben Bird and Morley Shine, the man connected in different ways to each woman on the list slowly resolves into a sociopath—and possibly a serial killer. He invades Millhone’s office and her friend’s home and does creepy things like leaving everything just slightly out of place, simply to let them know he’s been there. Kinsey’s eventual one-on-one encounter with him is fraught with expertly written tension and real menace in a way only an old pro like Grafton can manage.

    The neverending story
    One of the best parts of living in Kinsey Millhone’s world for a while with each book is the sense of ongoing adventure. As X ends with a trio of imaginative and unexpected resolutions to its key mysteries, there are some loose threads as always, which Grafton uses to fine effect, implying that this is not some piece of standalone fiction, but rather a glimpse into a lifetime that had been 32 years in the making prior to A is for Alibi, and will likely go on for decades after the conclusion of Z is for Zero. Few writers can manage that without it being blatant sequel fodder, but Grafton has molded Kinsey Millhone into a vibrant, real person over the years, and X ends with a wonderful epilogue that satisfies and intrigues in equal measure.

  • BN Editors 2:52 pm on 2015/06/24 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , brad thor, , , , , , , , , sue grafton, , ,   

    The Biggest Books of the Summer 

    This summer brings a fresh crop of brand-new books, including a creepy thriller by the king of creepy thrillers, the return of an author we’ve loved since childhood, and what might be the most anticipated novel of the century. Throw them in your beach bag, bring them on your road trip, or just use them to make your lunch hour awesome.

    Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee
    The release of a follow-up to American classic To Kill a Mockingbird promises to be the book event not just of the year, but of the 21st century so far. In this sequel of sorts—set 20 years after but actually written before Harper Lee’s debut—we meet an adult Scout Finch, whose visit to her hometown and to father Atticus Finch, literature’s most beloved lawyer, takes place against the shifting backdrop of 1950s America.

    Finders, Keepers, by Stephen King
    In this follow-up to last year’s Mr. Mercedes, King revisits the themes of obsession, inspiration, and the dangerous bond between an author and his fans that drove previous masterpiece Misery. Retired detective and Mr. Mercedes hero Bill Hodges is back, now attempting to save a young reader in possession of some very valuable notebooks: they’re filled with the unpublished writing of an iconic author, killed by a deranged fan who’s fresh out of prison and coming to claim them.

    Modern Romance, by Aziz Ansari
    Ansari goes deep with his comic look at contemporary dating and relationships, with the help of a crack team of social scientists and findings culled from interviews held around the world. The result is a sharp, insightful marriage of humor writing and Ansari’s illuminating findings on dating, wedlock, and love. This is the most fun you’ll ever have reading a science book.

    In the Unlikely Event, by Judy Blume
    Blume’s first novel in 17 years is set in the 1950s Elizabeth, New Jersey, of her youth, inspired by a trio of three real-life plane crashes that happened there within a terrifying three-month span. She paints a portrait of a town under siege, drawing in the stories of the doomed, the grieving, and the helpless bystanders. Despite the dark subject matter, Blume writes with a light, engaging touch, making you care for her characters even as you hold your breath waiting to see how they’ll be caught up in the next crash.

    The Girl in the Spider’s Web, by David Lagercrantz
    Eleven years after the death of series creator Stieg Larsson, Lagercrantz is continuing the twisted story of damaged hacker extraordinaire (and avenging angel) Lisbeth Salander. Journalist Mikael Blomkvist is back as well, in a pitch-black page-turner that takes readers by the throat from page one. Despite constant peril and vastly different agendas, the two rekindle their incendiary partnership when Blomkvist receives a news tip too hot to resist.

    The First Confessor, by Terry Goodkind
    In this prequel to Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series, a heroine rises from the ashes of her former life. Magda Searus is the wife of a powerful leader, protected by her husband’s status and his gifts. But when he unexpectedly commits suicide, she refuses to give up on finding out why—and learns, on her journey, the true nature of the darkness overtaking her people.

    The Marriage of Opposites, by Alice Hoffman
    Hoffman takes as her subject the headstrong young woman who will become the mother of impressionist painter Camille Pissarro. Rachel belongs to a rigidly tradition-bound immigrant Jewish community on the lush island of St. Martin. At her mother’s command, teenaged Rachel marries a widower, becoming stepmother to three children. But when he dies, and his handsome nephew arrives to settle his affairs, she jumps headfirst into a scandalous affair with wide-reaching consequences, for both herself and the famous son who will be born of her remarriage.

    Circling the Sun, by Paula McLain
    In her follow-up to bestseller The Paris Wife, McLain breathes life into another fascinating 1920s woman: Beryl Markham, an adventurous aviatrix and horse trainer. Emerging from a bleak childhood, Markham grows into a powerful, unconventional figure in a vibrant British community in Kenya. McLain explores the adventures and love triangles of a woman who was way ahead of her time.

    The Nature of the Beast, by Louise Penny
    When a little boy with a penchant for telling tall tales goes missing, it’s up to Inspector Armand Gamache to figure out which of his wild stories was true, and how it ties into his disappearance. Guilt, sorrow, and an evil with deep roots thread together to enrich an increasingly twisted mystery. This is Penny’s 11th book following Inspector Gamache, whose retirement to the tiny town of Three Pines hasn’t made him any less of a magnet for intrigue.

    The President’s Shadow, by Brad Meltzer
    In Meltzer’s third Culper Ring book, inspired by a laymen spy organization founded at the behest of George Washington, the present-day first lady finds a severed arm in the most unlikely of places: the White House rose garden. The president turns to the Ring for help, despite his complicated relationship with one of its members, Beecher White. White takes the case when he learns the mysterious limb may have a link to his own father’s death, many years prior. If you can’t make it to D.C. this summer to see the sights, visit its shady underbelly with this well-researched page turner.

    Code of Conduct, by Brad Thor
    Thor’s latest military thriller finds counterterrorism operative Scot Harvath on a high-stakes, globe-trotting mission involving an untouchable organization that operates outside the law; four seconds of game-changing tape that can imperil everything; and an assignment that turns into a deadly personal war.

    Independence Day, by Brad Coes
    The fifth book in thriller writer Ben Coes’ Dewey Andreas series, Independence Day finds the disgraced Andreas, still grieving the loss of his fiancée, emerging from his hometown retreat to neutralize a perilous new threat: Russian hacker Cloud, who has both a nuclear weapon and a vendetta against the U.S. Against orders, Andreas goes rogue to join the investigation, and soon discovers a vast political plot set to endanger the western world—and he’s got three days to stop it.

    Second Life, by S.J. Watson
    Recovering alcoholic Julia has fought her way to a happy life: nice house, wealthy husband, adopted son. But the killing of her sister sets off a dangerous obsession with finding her murderer, one that draws her deep into her sister’s life, full of irresistible dark corners that have the power to destroy her.

    X Is For…, by Sue Grafton
    In the 24th installment of Grafton’s perennially bestselling Kinsey Millhone series, named for the trickiest letter in the alphabet, private investigator Millhone goes head to head with a serial killer. This isn’t a whodunit, but rather a nail-biting race against time, as Millhone tries to build a case that will get him locked away…and keep her out of his clutches.

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