"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."