Get Blog Posts Via Email

View RSS Feed


Book Author: Sue Grafton

Is it possible to have a mystery novel in which the protagonist is not investigating a murder?

That’s a question that is frequently asked in the mystery courses I teach at BOLLI, the Brandeis Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.  And my answer always is yes.

It’s true that the majority of mysteries involve murders because that crime is one from which there is no return, at least for the victim.  Once dead, always dead to be blunt about it.  In the hands of a skillful, creative author, however, any crime may be the basis for an outstanding mystery.

In this time of COVID-19 and social distancing, I have been scanning the shelves in our family room and re-reading many of my favorite mysteries.  In particular, I have been re-reading Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone alphabet series, and I just finished “L” IS FOR LAWLESS. 

A little background for those not familiar with Sue Grafton’s work:  the series started in 1982, when Kinsey is a private investigator in Santa Teresa, California.  Through the series, which ran until the author’s death in 2017, Kinsey barely ages, remaining in her thirties even in “Y” IS FOR YESTERDAY, the last mystery Ms. Grafton wrote.   As her daughter Jamie Clark wrote, “As far as we in the family are concerned, the alphabet now ends at Y.”

LAWLESS starts when Kinsey is asked by her landlord and close friend, Henry Pitts, to do a favor for a friend.  Johnny Lee, an elderly man who lived around the corner from Kinsey and Henry, had died several months earlier, and his son and grandson have been attempting to get the government to pay the funeral expenses, to which they believe Lee was entitled as a World War II veteran.

Lee’s survivors can find no papers with information about his time in the Air Force, and they have been told by various federal agencies they’ve contacted that there’s no record of his service.  Checking with Johnny’s son Chester, Kinsey is told of his belief that the government is hiding his father’s record.  When she asks why the government would refuse to admit that the deceased was ever a member of the armed forces, Chester tells her that it’s his belief that “he was a double agent…for the Japanese.”

Farfetched as this seems to Kinsey, she agrees to look into the situation, and thereby hangs a tale of break-ins, assaults, ex-cons, domestic abuse, and much more.  The book is humorous at times, always suspenseful, and filled with characters whose commonality is their inability to tell the truth.  Masterful writer that Sue Grafton was, the reader may not notice until the book’s end that there’s no murder for Kinsey to investigate.

Readers can go back as far as Sherlock Holmes to see that there are many books and stories in which murder does not play a part.  As an aside, I find that I am often bothered by the gratuitous number of murders in recent novels.  Some authors seem to feel that when in doubt, throw in another body.  It’s an easy way to hike up the tension, but it’s not a good story-telling technique.  Rather a cheap trick, in my opinion.

I still have thirteen Sue Grafton mysteries left to re-read, and I am certain that whether they feature murders or not, each one will be well worth a second go-round.  And in reading the novels for a second time, perhaps I can discover Kinsey’s secret formula for not getting older…it’s worth a try.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.


Y IS FOR YESTERDAY by Sue Grafton: Book Review

Along with all the other readers of the Kinsey Millhone series, I approached Sue Grafton’s latest novel with both anticipation and despair.  The anticipation is obvious–I’ve been reading Ms. Grafton’s mysteries since A is for Alibi was published in 1982 and have enjoyed every one.  At that time it seemed inconceivable that the end of the alphabet would ever be reached; delusional thinking, I know.

Now comes the despair–Y is for Yesterday is, I imagine, the next-to-last book in the series.  I’m trying to think how Ms. Grafton can work around her self-imposed finale.  Could she start all over with A+ is for Adventure/Adultery/Absence?  It works for me; anything to read more about Kinsey Millhone.

When the book opens in 1989 (that’s present time in the series), Kinsey is approached by Lauren McCabe, whose son Fritz has just been released from prison.  Ten years earlier Fritz killed a teenage friend, Sloan Stevens.  The two were part of a group of high school students led by Austin Brown, who was both admired and feared by his classmates.  Austin had been the instigator of a “shunning” of Sloan for reasons that secretly benefited him.  Allegedly trying to patch things up, he invited her to a party at his family’s cabin.

She reluctantly agreed to go, although once she got there words were exchanged between the two of them.  Angry and upset, she started to walk away, but she was overtaken by Austin and three of his friends, driven to a remote area in the woods, and killed.  Although Austin’s gun was the murder weapon, it was Fritz who fired the shot.  Of the four boys implicated, one gave state’s evidence and avoided jail time, one was convicted of lesser charges and spent time in prison, Fritz spent ten years in jail and was automatically freed under California law at age twenty-five, and Austin Brown disappeared.

When Kinsey and Lauren meet, Lauren tells the detective about a package she received after Fritz’s return home.  It contained a tape of sexual acts committed by four boys, including Fritz, against Iris Lehmann, another member of the student group, who was obviously drunk and/or stoned at the time of the attack.  The tape was accompanied by a demand for $25,000 from the McCabes with the warning that unless it was paid, another copy would be sent to the police.  Even though Fritz had served time for Sloan’s murder, he still could be prosecuted for rape and sexual assault.

As always, Sue Grafton’s characters are wonderfully portrayed.  We meet Fritz, who was desperate to be a friend of Austin’s when they were in school together; Iris Lehmann, who now wants revenge on the boys who violated her and taped the assault for their own amusement; Troy, who spent years in prison for his involvement in Sloan’s death and since his release has been trying to atone for his part in the attack on Iris; and Lauren and Hollis McCabe, fearful that their son is headed down the wrong road again but with conflicting opinions on how to deal with it.

Y is for Yesterday shows the reader a more vulnerable, more cautious, Kinsey but still a woman determined to do her job.  Ms. Grafton’s other returning characters–Kinsey’s elderly landlord Henry; Rosie, the owner of the Hungarian restaurant down the block from Kinsey’s apartment; and Jonah Robb, a former lover of Kinsey’s who is still in an off-again-on-again marriage with a very jealous wife–are all present in Y is for Yesterday and the novel is richer for them.

Wait–here’s another thought.  The author could switch to another alphabet, since many other languages have more than 26 letters.  Tamil, for example has 247; if that seems too daunting, she could choose Hindi or Hungarian, each with 44!  If you know Ms. Grafton, please feel free to pass this post along to her.

You can read more about Sue Grafton at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.

W IS FOR WASTED by Sue Grafton: Book Review

Kinsey Millhone is back, and I’m delighted to see her.  There’s a lot going on in W is for Wasted–a will, long-lost relatives, an unethical private eye, a returning former lover–but it all hangs together, given Sue Grafton’s always excellent character studies and plots.  The story is told in the first person by Kinsey and in the third person by Pete Wolinsky, whom we discover is dead in the third sentence of the prologue.

It’s 1988, and Kinsey is taking a brief vacation from investigating.  Her bank balance is healthy, her needs are modest, and she’s delighted to have a few days to herself.  Then she gets a call from a friend at the coroner’s office, asking her to identify a body The deceased was homeless, and a slip of paper found in his pocket bore Kinsey’s name and phone number.

When Kinsey goes to view the body in the morgue she tells the coroner’s assistant she has never seen the man before.   Intrigued by why the deceased was apparently trying to contact her, she decides to try to find out who this man was.  From small acorns do mighty oaks grow.

Kinsey’s first stop is the area where the body was found, and there she meets three of the man’s friends.  After a bit of verbal sparring, one of the trio tells her Terrence was the dead man’s name, and Kinsey’s investigation begins.

Deceased private investigator Pete Wolinsky’s story is told by an unknown narrator.  He was a P.I. without a moral compass, a man who got others to do his investigating, falsified his expense accounts, owed money to countless businesses, didn’t file tax returns, and wasn’t above subtle extortion attempts.  That last one was a big mistake on his part.

As readers of the alphabet series know, Kinsey was orphaned at an early age and raised by her maternal aunt.  Aunt Gin wasn’t much of a warm-and-fuzzy person, and she apparently had no use for the members of her family other than Kinsey.  Thus Kinsey didn’t know, until years after her aunt’s death, that she had a large family on her mother’s side living not far from her home in Santa Teresa, California.

She’d never been much interested in them and had seen no reason to look into her father’s side of the family.  But now they’ve entered her life with a vengeance.

Several familiar characters are in W, and very welcome they are.  Of course there’s Henry Pitts, the octogenarian landlord, former baker, and current provider of delicious meals and desserts for Kinsey; his older brother William, a confirmed hypochondriac; Rosie Pitts, recently married to William and owner of the nearby Hungarian restaurant where Kinsey eats most of her meals; and Kinsey’s former lover, Robert Dietz.  And there’s a new addition:  Ed the cat, who soon has Kinsey and Henry eating out of his hand (or paw).

W is for Wasted is another winning novel by Sue Grafton.  It’s fun for me, who knew Kinsey from the beginning (A is for Alibi), to follow her personal and professional life.  She has not remained a stagnant figure, stuck in time, but has grown into a mature woman who still has the recognizable quirks that made her a success from the beginning of the series.

You can read more about Sue Grafton at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Reads blog at her web site.








U IS FOR UNDERTOW by Sue Grafton: Book Review

Sue Grafton doesn’t need my review of her latest mystery to propel her to the top of the best-sellers’ list.  She’s been on top of the heap since her first mystery, A Is For Alibi, was published in 1982.  But it’s nice to report that this novel is as appealing as any of her others and gives us a deeper look into Kinsey than we have glimpsed before.

U Is For Undertow is somewhat of a departure from Grafton’s previous novels.  This is as much a book about families and relationships as it is a mystery. Those who have followed Kinsey’s backstory know that her parents were killed in a car crash when Kinsey was five, that she was raised by one of her mother’s sisters, and that she had no contact with and wasn’t even aware that she had other living relatives until midway through the series.  At that point she’s contacted by cousins who’ve known about her and now want to meet her.  Over the following novels she has kept this family at arms’ length, rebuffing their attempts to include her in their circle.

Even though Kinsey doesn’t age at the same rate as the rest of us do (she’s apparently going to remain in her thirties throughout the series), her maturity has increased as the series has moved on, and at this point she is wavering between her loyalty to her late aunt and a pull toward finding out the complete story of her mother’s expulsion by her family.  This backstory of familial relationships connects with several others in the novel.

Kinsey is approached by Michael Sutton, a young man who believes that more than twenty years ago he was witness to the burial of a little girl who was kidnapped. His story is nearly unbelievable, but Kinsey decides to work for him for a day to see what she can discover.  Michael, it turns out, has a bizarre history that includes repressed memories of sexual abuse by his parents, later proven false, and estrangement from his sister and brothers.  His history is connected to that of two other men in the fictional town of Santa Teresa where Kinsey lives.

All of these families–Kinsey’s, Michael’s, and the two men who now are respectable citizens of Santa Teresa–have skeletons, both metaphorical and literal, in their backgrounds.  The more deeply Kinsey delves into Michael’s family background, the more she’s pulled into her own.  And the two men have their own family issues that must be explored before the book is over.

Undertow shows us a Kinsey who is more introspective than the one we’ve known before.  She has come to the understanding that seeing things in black and white is not always seeing them clearly, that many shades of gray show up in every family relationship.  Even though she’s not getting older, she is getting wiser.

You can also learn more at Sue Grafton’s web site.