book: U is for Undertow (2009) by Sue Grafton


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 . . .?

If only.


6 thoughts on “book: U is for Undertow (2009) by Sue Grafton

  1. I’m happy to see this review, and to read your kind reflections of the author. I was one who could never get beyond the two Kinsey Milhone books read years ago, largely for the reason you state: I didn’t really respond to the soap opera trappings woven in: the main character’s love life, the family history. (The plotlines of the stories I chose also struck me as less than memorable.) But as with most things, I should give Grafton another shot to see if my opinion has changed, and it’s nice to see that you enjoyed this book.

    On another note, I just received two color-centric noir titles through interlibrary loan from our well-stocked state system, both from 1947: RIDE THE PINK HORSE and THE RED HOUSE. Excited to watch them! Cheers —

    • As I’ve just been saying to Col, the books change a bit in their nature over the series, so it might be worth picking an area of the alphabet you’ve not looked at before.

      What next, Mystery of the Blue Room? Both of those are pretty good movies, although I’m always slightly baffled as to why The Red House is universally classified as a film noir. I’ve no real complaints about that, because I personally think the genre’s enriched the more its borders are explored, but, as I say, it puzzles me that even those with the strictest views on what the genre is somehow make an exception for The Red House.

  2. I read A is for Alibi through E or F, long ago. I quit reading them for not very good reasons. Then I got curious a couple of years ago about how well they represented Santa Barbara (as Santa Teresa), so read G is for Gumshoe, and enjoyed it. And she does do a good job with Santa Barbara, as she should since she has been a resident. Not as well done, in my opinion, as in Cutter and Bone, but I will try more of them.

    • I really ought to go back at some point and start infilling those of the letters that I haven’t read. On the other hand, there are plenty of other books demanding attention. I have W is for Wastage (I think it is) sitting on my shelf at the moment, and I’m sure will get to it fairly soon, having had fun with U.

      I don’t think I’ve ever been to Santa Barbara, so no way could I judge that aspect!

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