Good old Goodreads. I was halfway through a considered discussion of this book when, shambalaboolipops, Goodreads wiped out what I’d written. If I were Alex Jones I’d assume it was an Illuminati, Deep State plot. As I have a brain, or some semblance thereof, I think my little accident was just yet another product of Goodreads’s user-unfriendliness.
So let’s try again, shall we?
It’s not all that often that the death of someone I’ve never met — usually a celebrity of some kind — upsets me: John Hurt was one, Ed McBain another. Sue Grafton was yet another: everything I’ve been told about her tells me she was one of life’s good eggs, and I got the same impression from her novels, all in the Kinsey Milhone alphabetical series and many, probably most, of which I’ve read. I’ve never not enjoyed one of those novels, but . . .
At the same time, I don’t think they’re perfect. In particular, I tend to roll my eyes at what I regard as the dreary soap-opera bits: Kinsey’s slow rediscovery of her estranged family, the romantic and other entanglements of the family of her elderly landlord and the person who runs the Greek diner down the road. Those elements I could do without. McBain mastered the art of making the digressions/padding every bit as appealing as the rest of the novel; Grafton, for me, didn’t.
So I looked a bit nervously at the 400+ page-count of U is for Undertow. Was this going to be a swamp of extraneous soap-opera “bizness”?
I needn’t have worried. There’s some, but it’s not that much and it never threatens to dominate. Instead what we have is a damn’ good cold-case mystery, spanning the decades and offering enough by way of intriguing volte-faces to satisfy even a fairly demanding mystery fan like me.
Michael Sutton, wastrel heir, comes to Kinsey with his sudden flash of recollection that, over twenty years ago when he was a little kid, he stumbled across a couple of guys, disguised as pirates, who were burying a suspiciously body-shaped package in the woods. Could this, Michael thinks, be connected to the fact that, at about the same time, a child was kidnapped and never recovered?
Kinsey has her doubts, as do the cops, but being Kinsey she digs deeper and deeper until finally she solves the mystery of today’s (1988) developments and the old kidnapping.
Maybe two-thirds of the narrative is Kinsey’s first-person account of what’s going on now. The rest’s in third-person, some of it recounting what happened back in 1963-7, some of it telling us of current events where Kinsey’s not in attendance. (In a particularly impressive piece of storytelling skill, at one point the first-person Kinsey is suddenly introduced into the third-person modern-day narrative.) Because Grafton was, y’know, quite good at this sort of thing, there’s never any confusion as to which timestream or whose head you’re in.
I’ve mentioned above that this novel functions as a fine cold-case mystery. That’s true, but in a sense, now I think back on it, it doesn’t try to be a mystery at all. From relatively early on we know who the culprits were (at least if we ignore the little voice telling us that, if it’s that obvious, it can’t have been them!). On the other hand, there are plenty of details still there to be unpicked, and I for one was turning the pages eagerly as Kinsey unpicked ’em.
Grafton was just 77 when she died, having failed by exactly one novel to complete the alphabet. Every now and then I have this silly fantasy that I’ll wake up tomorrow to discover that rumors of her death were greatly exaggerated and that soon we’ll see the publication of the long-awaited Z is for . . .?