Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Family Ties Run Deep in 'U is for Undertow'

Review: U IS FOR UNDERTOW (Putnam 2009)
Author: Sue Grafton

When I started this 21st installment in the Alphabet Series, I was afraid its charm was starting to wear thin on me. Even the familiar "My name is Kinsey Millhone ..." recitation at the beginning was coming off a bit too much like a drone. However, the initial interview with her young client Michael Sutton was intriguing enough to keep me reading, even if the questioning did seem a bit like it was intended to prompt exposition more than anything. Years before, as a small child, Sutton recalls witnessing the burial (possibly) of a kidnapped girl named Mary Claire Fitzhugh. At least, he recalls the burial of something by two men ("pirates" he calls them). This was right around the time the girl went missing, never to be found. She was presumed to be dead.

Sutton goes to the cops who refer him to Kinsey, who agrees to take the case. The case being to figure out where this happened and find out who the "pirates" are. Sutton is convinced these men kidnapped, killed and buried Mary Claire. He's also worried that they saw him and, now that he's gone to the police, they may come after him, too.

Okay, now I'm interested. But first, we must endure dinner with the plucky old next-door neighbor. Henry, that 88-year-old goat. So spry, I could just kill him. And must we hear AGAIN about the boat-like interior design of Kinsey's home? Porthole windows and all.

But that's okay, because like all big fans of this series, I've come to expect this. And the story exceeds expectations in far more important ways.

Things quickly get interesting as Kinsey delves into the past and tries to find the facts Sutton asks her to confirm. But nothing is quite as it seems. Memory plays tricks and this turns out to be as true for Kinsey as for Sutton, actually.

Sue Grafton takes the ambitious approach of jumping about in time and switching points-of-view among multiple characters. I found this approach most riveting. While the generation-hopping narrative requires concentration, it's well worth the effort.

As the story unfolds and more is revealed from each person's perspective, it becomes clear that while Sutton may not be completely right, he's not completely wrong either. Kinsey's investigation unearths (no pun intended) far more than expected. Although Mary Claire's body isn't immediately found, other clues suggest Sutton may have witnessed something he wasn't supposed to have seen.

The story deals with various issues--dysfunctional families, alcoholism, drugs, addiction, alienation--which all pertain to the crimes at the heart of this story.

Meanwhile, the various plotlines from the past merge to form the basis of the mystery Kinsey is trying to solve in the present (or, at least, the 1980s). Further, the theme of good intentions gone awry is hinted at in various metaphorical ways, including a lengthy description of a pier project that causes the undertow referred to in the title.

And while all the players have no obvious connection at first, they are tied together in the end. Grafton's plotting is virtually flawless in this regard. She also expertly weaves in a subplot about Kinsey's family and the things she never knew about them.

However, like all the other books in the series, I loved this one primarily for Kinsey herself. Yes, I'm still a sucker for Kinsey.

And I say the plot is "virtually flawless" only because the details around the timing of the first homicide and what Sutton witnessed are, shall we say, murky. Further, why does another murder (almost two) take place at the end, when the killer intends to flee to a non-extradition country, anyway? Oh, well, makes for a much better climax. :)

And the epilogue is--in a total departure from others in the series--genuinely moving.

Finally, I do recommend this book. And, my quibbles notwithstanding, I continue to be amazed at how inventive Grafton has been at keeping this series fresh and interesting.

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