K is for Kinsey
I have recently been making my way through the books of Sue Grafton, beginning with A is for Alibi. I had never read any of Grafton’s books because, by the time she appeared on my radar, she had written more than half of an alphabet’s worth, and starting a series of that length seemed overwhelming. On someone’s recommendation, though, I finally decided to read the first one last fall. I liked it, but it didn’t bowl me over, so I thought, Okay, did that, checked off, next? and moved on.
For some reason, though, I felt like I wanted to give her books another chance. I liked her protagonist a lot; in readers’ advisory terms, she would be some combination of “lone detective” and “hard-boiled.”
A “hard-boiled” detective is usually working-class, white, and male, relying on tough talk to get his way. (This is one element that makes Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone unusual, because she’s the female version.) The most frequent protagonist of a hard-boiled novel is a private investigator, with a license, hired to solve crimes (as opposed to the amateur sleuth from the cozy novel). The hard-boiled protagonist is generally American, quite often a loner (and taking pride in that), with a code of honor and justice that is not strictly legal but is moral (and perhaps a bit black and white—hard-boiled detectives are not compromisers). Hard-boiled investigators are fast thinkers, witty but in a down-beat, cynical way, and have the expectation that most people are liars. The detective is frequently the first-person narrator, and tells the story in a detached, objective manner.
A “lone” detective works outside the lines of bureaucracy, and often considers him- or herself superior to the police force because she has to work twice as hard since she has no access to the built-in benefits of the bureaucracy, such as access to forensics, past records or databases. These types of characters are usually examined for the complex motives, strengths, and weaknesses they exhibit, to give their stories more credibility and interest.
These two descriptions come together in Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone. She’s an orphan in her early 30s, twice divorced, living alone in a one-room apartment converted from a garage. She went to the police academy and worked as a police officer for a few years, but rapidly discovered that the bureaucracy chafed her and decided she was better off on her own. She got her start by working for an insurance company, doing skip traces and research, and gradually built herself up into the type of investigator who would take on any assignment. She still has some contacts on the police force, but mostly gets where she wants to go by dogged persistence, extensive research, innate intelligence, and the occasional leap of canny intuition.
The way Grafton writes is not typical of the hard-boiled novel; although her protagonist exhibits all those characteristics, the writing style is more like literary fiction, with descriptions worthy of Tana French. She has an excellent command of language, and paints a complete visual picture of every town, street, building, car, and character, down to the color and make of his shoes and the number of lines in his face. This occasionally gets annoying, but is mostly an excellent backdrop for the precision with which Kinsey puts together her clues to solve her cases.
The other thing that keeps this series compelling is that in each book, Kinsey’s “assignment” is substantially different from that of the previous one—Grafton’s repetitive parts are made up for by the different situations in which Kinsey finds herself. I have, at this point, read A through J, and here is a quick summary of the variety of cases: a wrongful murder conviction; a missing persons case; a client with no memory; a simple delivery; a personal frame-up; an escaped killer whose father wants to prove his innocence; retrieval of a senior citizen from her desert home off the grid; a traffic accident insurance scam; a civil suit to protect an inheritance; and the presumed dead perpetrator of a ponzi scheme come back to life. Of course, since this is a mystery series, these mostly turn out to be murder stories, one way or another, but the clever way they are introduced and framed gives them a freshness not found in a police procedural.
Some readers find fault with the fact that, despite the number of books in the series, Grafton chose to keep Kinsey eternally in her 30s and the settings forever in the 1980s (think jumpsuits, shoulder pads, and radical hairdos), rather than letting the protagonist and the action grow into such technology as the internet, cell phones, etc. But I find it simultaneously nostalgic and refreshing that the people in these books still rely on such things as telephone books, pay phones, and reference librarians at the public library.
The one small caveat I have about these novels is the way Grafton chooses to end them all. One of the reasons it took me a few months to go beyond the first book in the series is detailed here, in my Goodreads review: “I enjoyed everything about this book up to the conclusion. I felt like she took us to a cliff, and then we turned a page and she had walked away from writing the penultimate scene and instead wrote a summary from a distant perspective. That was disappointing. ” Every book ends with an epilogue, some more abrupt than others. After reading a few of them I got used to the style, but it’s still occasionally jarring and I could wish that Grafton would have followed through in the present instead of summing up from the future, in each case.
EPILOGUE: A speech or piece of text added to the end of a play or book, often giving a short statement about what happens to the characters after the play or book finishes.
Despite having read as many of these as I have (and planning to read the rest, eventually), I couldn’t say that this is among my top five favorite mystery series. But there’s something sort of restful about it, if you can say that about a bunch of murder mysteries; Kinsey acts true to character, all the stories take place in an increasingly familiar environment as bits and pieces of description are added with each subsequent book, and I feel like I could pick up any one of these in a lull between other, more strenuous reads and find a satisfying occupation for a rainy afternoon.