Sunday, December 27, 2009

Crime Fiction by James and Grafton: Night and Day

(Reflections on two detective novels: THE PRIVATE PATIENT by P. D. James (Vintage Paperback 2008), and U IS FOR UNDERTOW by Sue Grafton (Putnam, 2009))

Whodunnit is almost beside the point by the time we get to the ends of these novels, and good thing, too. We love an intriguing situation, we love atmospherics, we love characters that we can despise whole-heartedly, and we love to anticipate a confrontation. Best of all, investigation provides urgency for the exercise of unearthing the past. While both novels have these characteristics, they are night and day: James is grim, autumnal, dark. Grafton's tale of crime has its share of ugly behavior, deception and death, but its outlook is sunny.

In THE PRIVATE PATIENT, it’s victim number one whose past pulls us in. A notoriously ruthless investigative reporter, single and successful, Rhoda Gradwyn carries a deep scar across her face from an incident of parental brutality. She tells her high society plastic surgeon that she “no longer needs” her scar. We know from the novel’s first sentence that this decision will cost her her life, and we even know the date of her murder. As we learn more about her past, and as she begins to anticipate change, it’s a little as if we were to be told that Ebenezer Scrooge will die on Christmas morning on the cusp of a new life.

James has said often that her process of writing a novel begins with a place. Here, it’s an ancient manor house in the country, where druids’ stones mark the boundary, where the surgeon has set up shop for his more private and wealthy clients. For some characters, it’s a place to hide; for others, its past is an obsession; of course, there’s money and inheritance involved, too. James soaks the place in atmosphere, as several characters hear the shriek of some meadow creature being found by some night time predator, and others tell of the supposed witch who was executed on those druids’ stones. She builds suspense very well in a chapter where two women search a building for some sign of a young man who’s missing, as they, no less than we, gradually come to realize that they’re liable to find a corpse. They do, in a memorably horrific context.

Sue Grafton said in an interview recently that she begins at least some of her novels with a social problem in mind. "T" began with the notion of elder abuse. For "U," she started with the phenomenon of grownups who claim to have just remembered sexual abuse from childhood. A boy who once cried “wolf” gets detective Kinsey Millhone into an investigation of the past, and her ambivalence about him keeps this novel rich in possibilities and ambiguities.

Grafton is using elements recently used in others of her series. “S is for Silence” also alternated chapters in the present (ca. 1987) with chapters decades before. “T is for Trespass” gave us chapters from the bad guy’s perspective. And Grafton took us into the time of extreme social flux, 1967-1968, in “Q is for Quarry.”

Grafton once again mines that Summer of Love and strikes gold. We get the social milieu of suburban parents, imbibing martinis at the yacht club. We get their incredulity when their clean – cut college drop out son arrives with an appalling hippy girl friend and her two children, parking their ratty school bus in the back yard to freeload. It’s those two children who become most vivid to me. Their story is ancillary to the main narrative, but I found myself most interested in their progress. I was rooting for the grandparents to save those children from their clueless, self-indulgent parents – who call themselves “Creed” and “Destiny,” their daughter “Rain.” After a day with his grandmother, the boy “Shawn Dancer” has his eyes opened to what he’s been missing. It’s also very real of Grafton to show us how the boy also never lets go the lie that his mother loves him.

Aside from the story itself, I enjoyed once more how Grafton weaves a texture with parallel plotlines and shared themes. A guilty man feels the “undertow” of his past, and literal undertow took one of the past characters out to her death. A climactic scene takes place on a promontory formed by undertow. A continuing subplot in the series involves Kinsey’s own abandonment by family in her childhood, here made to parallel the virtual abandonment of the little girl “Rain.”

I devoured this one in a single weekend, half of it late on a Saturday night.

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