Tuesday, April 13, 2010

'U is for Undertow' Doesn't Satisfy My Kinsey Milhone Itch

Let me begin by getting a few things straight. I love Sue Grafton. And I love Kinsey Milhone. I love both of them in Grafton's latest novel, U is for Undertow, and I also really liked the novel. Yes, I said that exactly right -- I love Grafton & Milhone, and liked Grafton's latest book. It did what it was designed to do; it gave readers more of what they've been asking for -- more Kinsey. It just didn't (400 plus pages later) satisfy my yearning for another great Grafton mystery.

In U is for Undertow, Grafton sets up quite an interesting mystery. Michael Sutton, pariah of the upper class in Grafton's fictional Santa Teresa (a la Santa Barbara) and especially the ritzy neighborhood Horton Ravine, hires Kinsey to do some detecting for him. The local newspaper just did a piece on famous missing children who were never found, and one story in particular jumps out at him. Sutton believes he remembers stumbling upon two men (or "pirates", as his 6-year-old self thought of them) burying something. At six, he might have believed their "buried treasure" act; at close to thirty, he doesn't. Sutton persuades Kinsey to take his case and help him reconstruct that day more than twenty years ago. Fittingly, that the case begins 21 years prior, and this is Grafton's 21st Kinsey Milhone chapter.

In the novel Grafton switches between several narratives, both present-day and from 1967. She uses not only Kinsey, but also the kidnapped girl's peers and other Horton Ravine families who seemingly have little-to-no relation to the crime. As other characters play such a prominent role in the novel, the reader can easily deduce who the guilty part(ies) might be, long before Kinsey has gotten there. In fact, Kinsey does little work towards the plot's climax, leaving me wishing for more wisdom on the part of this beloved detective. Grafton does include some inner conflict for Kinsey, in the form of continued estranged family communications. However, even that leaves something to be desired.

Grafton talks about the book:

Was I happy to have another book through which to enjoy Kinsey and her fellow recurring characters? Absolutely. Did I feel she was almost a side character in a larger novel Grafton was attempting to write? Somewhat. Did I enjoy the novel? I did. I just wished for more Kinsey-style angst and less narration from one-time characters. Would I recommend it? I would, for both long-time Grafton fans and for new readers.

If you're just now hopping on the Kinsey Milhone train, U is for Undertow wouldn't be a bad way to start. It has just enough intrigue to prove interesting, while little enough background required that a new reader would not find him- or herself lost. That being said, what Grafton first-timers should actually do is go back to the beginning and learn about Kinsey from A is for Alibi and B is for Burglar. Then make your way to U is for Undertow; by the time you're through, a new book will be out and you won't have to wait for the "V" version.

Although I would dearly love to see our Kinsey on the big screen (or even on the small screen, for that matter!), Grafton's one wish is that her detective never be immortalized in a film of any kind. I've even read that she has threatened to come back and haunt any relatives who sell rights to her books after she's dead and gone. Maybe before that happens, she'll re-think that statement. Until then, Kinsey will live in the minds of millions of readers across the world.

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