Saturday, February 25, 2012

Sue Grafton makes her way through the alphabet with great aplomb.

I love Sue Grafton’s alphabet mysteries. I am not sure that I have read every single one, but I’ve read many. And this one is a great addition to the series.

V is for Vengeance

V is for Vengeance (437 pages, Putnam, $27.95) is the twenty-second of Sue Grafton’s alphabet mysteries. All feature Kinsey Milhone as the private investigator, and all are set in the coastal California town of Santa Teresa, which seems for all the world a replica of Santa Barbara.

I am tempted to call Sue Grafton the Jane Austen of mystery writers. Like Austen, Grafton narrows her focus and develops her story in local and relatively confined ways. Within that, though, she tells remarkable stories of human interest. And although she doesn’t relate to the marriage plot as a formal device, she does write about strong women who are willing to defy convention to make a life for themselves.

Kinsey Milhone is one of the great heroines of American fiction. In her faded jeans, turtleneck sweaters, and boots, she is ready for any crisis. She keeps herself fueled with junk food and energized by endless cups of coffee, but this never slows her down or makes her any less than keen to take on the bad guys.

In this novel, her outrage when she sees a woman shoplifting in a Santa Teresa department store—she reports the theft to the saleswoman whom she knows—leads Kinsey into the dark and deeply complicated world of retail theft. Aside from reporting the astonishing figure that represents the loss from such theft each year—way into the billions—she also shows how complicated a system is involved and how ultimately violent and victimizing that system can be. When so much money is involved, tempers can flare to say the least. Kinsey finds herself over her head very quickly, but that is often where she prefers to be. We watch her struggle to make sense of a world that is sordid and mystifying.

In this novel, however, Grafton leads us inside the world of crime so that we can start to distinguish between villains and heroes in that world as well. Combine that with trying to decide between dependable and corrupt cops, and you start to see how much Kinsey is up against even in sleepy Santa Teresa.

The story also involves a wealthy society woman, Nora, whose son has been a victim of some of the rougher effects of unpaid gambling debts—he is thrown off the top of a five-story hotel in Las Vegas. Nora finds herself confronting the same world that Kinsey has confronted but from exactly the other side. As we watch these two powerful women deal with crises in their lives, we can also see what makes Grafton such a strong and popular novelist.

Grafton doesn’t pull any punches, and she doesn’t ask her characters to give into convention because it might be good for them. Instead they challenge the rules, in their different ways, and they are rewarded as a result. If Nora’s reward defies the status quo of “happily ever after,” Kinsey’s does as well. Nora may get the man, in other words, but Kinsey gets the goods. And that’s really all she’s ever wanted.

Sue Grafton

V is for Vengeance is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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