Friday, November 1, 2013

Review of Sue Grafton's W Is for Wasted

W Is for Wasted by Sue Grafton

For me, reading a Sue Grafton alphabet series book is like slipping on a pair of comfortable old slippers. I live on the central California coast where the series is set (fictional Santa Teresa and ritzy Montebello are really Santa Barbara and pricey Montecito), and Grafton is meticulous when describing the area's lifestyles, geography, and history. I've known protagonist Kinsey Millhone, now in her late 30s, since A Is for Alibi was published in 1982. Obviously, Kinsey isn't aging as fast as I am.

Raised by a strict maiden aunt after her parents died in a car accident when she was five, Kinsey likes the stability of rules, although she often breaks them. She can be a smartass and lies easily. After a few years on the police force, she's now a private eye who's been married and divorced twice.

Kinsey is a cheapskate who cuts her own hair with a fingernail scissors and lives in scuffed boots and jeans unless something more formal is required; then, she drags out that one black dress hanging in her closet. After a bomb destroyed her old place, home is now a compact apartment fitted out like a ship's cabin, courtesy of her landlord, neighbor, and good friend, 88-year-old Henry Pitts. Henry, his older brother William, and William's Hungarian wife, Rosie, who runs her own restaurant (currently closed for fumigation), are like family to Kinsey. A few years ago, Kinsey was flabbergasted to learn her mother's relatives live in nearby Lompoc. Apparently, her wealthy grandmother was estranged from Kinsey's mother when she married Kinsey's dad; Kinsey is as eager to establish a close relationship with her mother's family as she is to walk across a minefield.

The joys and heartaches unique to family ties, the ways we damage ourselves by deceiving others, miscarriage of justice, the devastation of addiction, searching for meaning in a materialistic society, and contrasts between haves and have-nots are familiar themes in Grafton's series. In W Is for Wasted (September 2013, Putnam), these themes run through two narratives that ultimately connect two men, both dead at the book's beginning. Kinsey knew one of them: unscrupulous private detective Pete Wolinsky, shot late at night near the bird sanctuary.

Kinsey doesn't recognize the other man when a coroner's investigator asks her to view a corpse with no ID at the morgue. He was a homeless man found dead on a Santa Teresa beach. Such are the oddities of life, that a scrap of paper bearing the words "Millhone Investigations" found in a dead man's pocket makes Kinsey's life intersect with that of a morgue's John Doe. How the Kinsey who loves lying and snooping through a suspect's dresser drawers always feels compelled to do the right thing has always interested me. Somehow, she feels honor bound to find out who he is and why he needed a private investigator. Kinsey begins by tracking down his homeless companions, Pearl, Felix, and Dandy.

The character portraits of these Central Coast homeless are one of this book's strengths. And so is the look at Kinsey as she follows clues to a will, an old wrong, and new family connections before discovering the nature of the ties that bind her John Doe to private eye Pete Wolinsky.

It's sleuth work 1988 style, and it's comforting to see Kinsey still using index cards, a Smith-Corona typewriter, crisscross telephone directories (some decades-old telephone directories even include occupation and spouse's name for each listed address and phone number!), face-to-face interviews, pay phones, and folded paper maps. Narrator Kinsey is still witty and engaging, although somewhat more contemplative and subdued than usual. Dialogue, especially between squabbling family members, is terrific and sounds like something I'd actually overhear. There's a reunion atmosphere as familiar series names such as cops Jonah Robb and Con Dolan, attorney Lonnie Kingman, and private eye Morley Shine pop up. Kinsey's old beaus Cheney Phillips (does he ever drive anything but this year's red Mercedes?) and Robert Deitz make an appearance, and a Japanese bobtail joins the cast of characters.

It's enjoyable stuff, although some of the  connections between people stretch coincidence, and plot lines bringing old characters in feel manufactured, even if welcome. And, at 484 pages, it reminded me a bit of the old Hillary Waugh police procedural classic, 30 Manhattan East: A Case for Homicide North, in which the reader watches Det. Lt. Frank Sessions open the drawer of his desk, take out a pencil, sharpen it, chew the eraser, lean back in his chair.... In other words, there is much extraneous detail.

In any case, Grafton's alphabet books are popular for good reason: Kinsey is darned likable. I had fun seeing her and the regulars again and thinking about all the ways in which "W" is for wasted: wasted lives, wasted hopes, people who are "wasted" on drugs or killed. I'll be sorry when the alphabet ends.

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