U is for Undertow, by Sue Grafton

Grafton I very much enjoyed reading this classic crime novel. Although this is 21st in a series, anyone coming to it for the first time would enjoy this book, which is praise indeed, for the balance of satisfying regular readers while attracting new ones is a hard one to achieve.

Kinsey Milllhone, who lives in a place where time is slower than it is in reality, is now in 1988, living in Santa Teresa, California (a thinly disguised Santa Barbara). She is an independently minded PI, who makes a reasonable living providing evidence in cases such as divorce, corporate hiring, and the like. Occasionally, something comes her way that is slightly offbeat, and the baseline of her regular work allows her to spend time getting to the bottom of these unusual investigations.

Michael Stone is a somewhat inadequate, but nice, man who comes to see Kinsey because he has suddenly remembered an incident from his childhood. When he was six, he was playing in “the woods” and met two men burying something. When in his adult persona he encounters one of the men, he has a flashback and, putting two and two together, thinks that what he has remembered is a burial. At exactly that time in 1967, a four-year-old girl was kidnapped and, despite the desperate parents paying a ransom, she was never returned or found. Michael thinks that what he remembers is meeting two men who were burying the girl’s body.

After interrogating him, Kinsey agrees to spend a day (all that Michael can afford) investigating the 21-year-old case. She soon zeroes in on the location with Michael’s corroboration, and calls in the police. They investigate, but what they find is not the body of a girl. 

The rest of the book is a series of alternating chapters that are sometimes set in the mid-1960s, when the kidnap happened, and sometimes set in 1988, Kinsey’s present. I very much enjoyed the 1960s segments, particularly the chapters told from the point of view of Deborah Urunth, a conventional suburban US housewife who is subjected to the full force of the “summer of love” in both gently humorous and real-world senses. 

Kinsey gradually uncovers the events of the past, intrigued by Michael’s situation and half, but not entirely, convinced by those who tell her that he’s a time-waster and a fantasist who has irrevocably damaged his own family. At the same time, she receives some information about her own estranged relations, and cannot help experiencing parallels between her own case and that of Michael’s. Kinsey is an attractive, highly independent woman who likes being alone; she’s easy to identify with and I think one of the most enduringly reliable female protagonists in crime fiction.

Sue Grafton has written a very good crime novel with a solid plot and plenty of pace and observation. She really delivers, not taking the easy route of appealing to her audience who have read her previous 20 books (as I have), but rather adopting a fresh approach and creating a story of real human interest in addition to the satisfying detection plot. The ending is perhaps a little hasty with a question or two not properly resolved (quite glaringly in one case), but the juxtaposition of past memories and present characters, over the 20-year period that the novel covers, as well as Kinsey’s own continuing story, is very well done. I highly recommend this book, whether or not you have read any of the previous Kinsey Millhone novels.

Review first posted at Petrona, September 2010.

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