"What fascinates me about life is that now and then the past rises up and declares itself," says Kinsey Millhone, the star of Sue Grafton's long-running series of mystery novels, at the start of this latest outing. "Here's the odd part," Millhone continues. "In my ten years as a private eye, this was the first case I ever managed to resolve without crossing paths with the bad guys. Except at the end, of course."
Grafton is serving notice that this book, the 21st installment of the series she started in 1982, won't be a straight-up private-eye story. After 27 years in the business, the author peers beneath the conventional mechanics of crime fiction to explore its moral underpinnings. Among the many fascinations of "Undertow" is that the bad guys aren't really bad—they're just ordinary people who've made some very poor choices. Grafton doesn't ask us to sympathize with them; she simply illustrates, with horrifying precision, how an otherwise ordinary life can suddenly get dragged out to sea.
That's not to say that Grafton doesn't deliver on the promised mystery—the crime at the center of the book is a classic. In 1967, a four-year-old girl named Mary Claire Fitzhugh is kidnapped from the backyard of her home in Horton Ravine, one of the outlying areas of Grafton's fictional preserve of Santa Teresa, California. Twenty-one years later (it's 1988 in Kinsey Millhone's world), the unsolved crime has become a celebrated cold case. Millhone finds herself drawn into the long-dormant investigation when a young man named Michael Sutton brings her a story that sounds "just screwy enough to be true." Sutton claims to have recovered a suppressed memory of witnessing the missing girl's burial when he was only six years old—too young to communicate, much less comprehend, the enormity of what he had seen.
Skeptical, Millhone agrees to give him a single day of her time. "I'll probably regret it, but what the hell? It's only one day," the private eye tells her client. As an aside to the reader, she adds: "If I'd been listening closely, I'd have caught the sound of the gods having a great big old tee-hee at my expense."
As her detective sets to work, Grafton steps away from the investigation and takes the reader back to the 1960s, just as a young Berkeley drop-out named Greg Unruh arrives home to introduce his pregnant, "pious twit" of a girlfriend to his parents: "Deborah Unruh hated the girl on sight." Throughout the book Grafton deftly toggles between the 1960s and the 1980s, balancing the tortuous events that led to the kidnapping against Millhone's efforts to untangle the fallout 20 years later. It's a measure of Grafton's sure-handedness that she's able to keep her detective offstage for long stretches of time without once dropping the thread of the story.
In fact, the 1960s storyline is so gripping that at times Kinsey Millhone gets pushed to the background of her own book. To restore the balance, Grafton gives the private eye a breakthrough in her personal life. Regular readers will know something of Millhone's family history, dating back to the star-crossed night her parents met. "Rita Cynthia Kinsey first clapped eyes on my father at her coming-out party," Millhone tells us, "where my father was filling in as a waiter for a friend who owned the catering company. Their marriage created a rift in the family that had never healed. My Aunt Gin was the only one of her four sisters who sided with her, and she ended up raising me after my parents were killed in a car wreck when I was five."
Millhone's estrangement from her family, a constant through most of the series, gets turned on its head in the new book—with the promise of further upheavals to come. "I was reminded of that old question that comes up occasionally at a cocktail party," Millhone says, while pondering her dilemma, "if you knew that in your top dresser drawer there was a piece of paper on which was written the date and time of your death, would you peek?"
In a sense, Grafton's fans now face the same question. The Kinsey Millhone series has only five books left to go before Grafton comes to the end of the line—and the alphabet—with a book she has already titled "Z Is for Zero." Many readers will wonder if it's possible to hop on the carousel at this late stage. Grafton, for her part, takes nothing for granted. Each book stands on its own, with plenty of background for the uninitiated. After 21 books, the lead character still takes the time to introduce herself to newcomers: "My name is Kinsey Millhone. I'm a private detective, female, age thirty-seven, with my thirty-eighth birthday coming up in a month. Having been married and divorced twice, I'm now happily single and expect to remain so for life. I have no children thus far and I don't anticipate bearing any. Not only are my eggs getting old, but my biological clock wound down a long time ago. I suppose there's always room for one of life's little surprises, but that's not the way to bet."
There's much to be said for going back to the beginning of this groundbreaking series—"A Is for Alibi"—but the current book is a true standout. At a time when many other long-running detective franchises have lapsed into formula, Grafton finds new ways to push the edges of the genre and keep her books fresh. As the title suggests,"U Is for Undertow" moves fast and has an irresistible pull.
Enjoy the ride.
Daniel Stashower is the winner of two Edgar Awards—the first for Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle (2000) and the second for Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters (2008). His most recent book is The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder. He previously reviewed John Irving's Last Night in Twisted River for AARP The Magazine Online.