Sunday, March 01, 2009

Sue Grafton's P, Q, R, and T: Best for Last

(More reflections on Sue Grafton's alphabetical mystery series. Her novels I through O and especially S are discussed in another article on this blog, July 14, 2008.)

In Sue Grafton's series of alphabetical novels, her best two may be the most recent two, S is for Silence and T is for Trespass.

About P is for Peril, I had mixed feelings. There's an interesting detective plot digging into events several months old to find a missing person. For thrills and that surge of violence at the climax, however, Grafton introduced an unrelated subplot involving a handsome stranger, and it was less than satisfying to have one plot wind up before the other.

Q was unique in being based on an actual unsolved mystery. The story takes Kinsey out of her usual haunts, and it involves her with two retired detectives, one nearing the end of his life. That one wants to tie up loose ends in his career by finding the identity of a badly decomposed teenaged girl found in a stone quarry in the summer of 1969 -- a year when runaway teens and Charles Manson made headlines. Ms. Grafton paid to have a forensic expert make a reconstruction of the face of a real teenaged girl whose body was found that year in a stone quarry.

I'm afraid that R is for Ricochet was a hard slog for me, because the main line of the plot seemed to be sidelined by the love lives of Kinsey Millhone and of her 89 year old landlord Henry. "R" might stand for rambling. To be honest, I'm thirty pages from the end and not interested enough to finish it.

I've discussed the wonderful S elsewhere (see July 14th, 2008), along with the novels before P.

Now T is for Trespass shows Grafton in control. Again, a musical analogy is apt. Grafton opens the novel with a short meditation on predatory people, and she reprises that at the end. In between, every plot and subplot -- even the landlord Henry's dating of a real estate agent -- relates strongly to that theme of predatory people who don't see anything wrong with how they manipulate others for gain.

Reading T, I was reminded of the novels by Charlotte Armstrong. In Armstrong's novels written in the 50s and 60s, she lets the reader know step by step everything that the bad guys are doing. The suspense grows as the reader wonders how far the bad guys will get before the good guys figure out what's going on.

The plot involves a caregiver (pseudonym Solana Rojas) hired to take care of Kinsey's elderly neighbor. Kinsey grows uneasy right away, in a scene that recalls our first glance of Roger Chillingworth in The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne describes a look that twists across Chillingworth's face like a snake, then disappears like a snake in its hole, through the man's immense effort at self-control. In Kinsey's first conversation with Solana, the dialogue quickly goes awry:

It was like being in the presence of a snake, first hissing its presence and then coiled in readiness. I didn't dare turn my back or take my eyes off her.... In that flicker of a moment, I could see her catch herself. Some kind of barrier had come down and I'd seen an aspect of her I wasn't meant to see, a flash of fury that she'd covered up again. It was like watching someone in the throes of a seizure -- for three seconds she was gone and then back again. (p. 137, paperback edition).

But it's a problem for the novelist built-in to the plot, that Kinsey can get only rare glimpses of the caregiver's tricks, over a period of weeks. Grafton faces a sort of stage management problem. How can she keep our interest with Kinsey in front of the curtain while she shifts the scenery backstage for the next act? Here, Grafton involves Kinsey in a handful of errands serving deadbeats with legal papers. These less - than - life- threatening subplots are still interesting, and with great skill, Grafton ties some of them in to the main plot (as when a deadbeat renter lives on the same seedy block of apartments where the deadbeat villainess lives -- a plausible coincidence), and all of them are tied by that theme of predators -- with a real estate hawk, a bogus civil suit, and a pedophile.

Grafton is learning her craft as she goes. Of course, we are, too. Can she still surprise us with U? I'm rooting for her.

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