Thursday, November 28, 2013

Grafton's W is for Wasted: Well-Woven and Warm

Reflection on W is for Wasted, by Sue Grafton.(New York: Putnam's, 2013.)

One pleasure of reading Sue Grafton's latest detective novel is to appreciate her skill in weaving nearly a dozen different strands into a single net.  Another pleasure, something of a surprise to me, is that she touches our emotions in unexpected ways. 

As detective Kinsey Millhone tells us right away, the story connects the deaths of two men who never knew each other.  One is an unscrupulous Private Investigator named Pete Wolinsky whom she knew slightly, and one a homeless man who carried her name and number in his pocket.  We learn Wolinsky's story through third-person flashbacks (presumed to be Kinsey's speculation after the fact), interspersed through Kinsey's forays into the homeless community and a distant town where the homeless man left wife and children years before.

Encounters that seem incidental do figure into the eventual grand design.  There's the young loser who sings, his sisters (one sluttish, one shy), their mother and their family's ex-neighbor with dementia, the P.I.'s long-suffering wife, Kinsey's sometimes boyfriend Dietz the P.I. in Nevada, an ugly encounter with "Boggarts" ("bad fairies" among the homeless), and researchers studying pharmaceutical  remedies for addiction. There's Kinsey's encounter with details from her paternal family history.   Oh, yes: her landlord adopts a cat named Ed.  I kid you not: all of these are interconnected by the time we reach the page-turning finale.

Along the way, we meet the rotund and rebarbative Pearl White, and her young buddy with blonde dread locks and braces, Felix.   Kinsey opines about the homeless several times, seeing sometimes no harm in them, and yet resenting how Pearl games the system.  A frustrated businessman tells Kinsey how he faces a life of debt over his own wife's $90 K hospital bills, while "some program" will take care of Pearl if she ever gets sick.  A funeral on the beach for the homeless man and one of his homeless friends near the end of the book took me by surprise, bringing tears to my eyes when passers-by were stopped by the solemnity of the occasion.  The eulogy includes this observation:

Both the urge to rescue and the need to condemn fail to take into account the concept of [the homeless people's] personal liberty, which they may exercise as they see fit so long as their actions fall within the law.  ...The homeless have established a nation within a nation, but we are not at war. (483)

Others we meet, who seem to be unsympathetic, do gain our respect, if not our sympathy, thanks to telling details imagined by Grafton.  The shy youngest daughter of the homeless man seems to be way off-topic when she tells about a Great Dane always jittery about going to the vet's, for fear of being put down. When the time came to put him down for real, the cooing and petting of his humans calmed him, for once.  "If I'd been there," she says, thinking of her father's death on a lonely stretch of beach, "I could have held Daddy's hand" (224).   The detective Wolinsky is certainly despicable in many ways, but his adoration of his wife, his shame, and his determination to please her, make him sympathetic, too. 

As we've come to expect, there's a suspenseful action-packed showdown involving the cat and a scalpel:  pretty creepy and exciting.

My only complaint is with Grafton's editor.  Must encounters of substance be separated by pages of detail about Kinsey's eating, grooming, and driving?  I swear, one passage told us how Kinsey stopped the car, turned the key in the ignition, put on the parking break, opened the door. etc. etc. etc.   There was so much of that stuff early in the book that I would not have pushed through except that I've come to trust Grafton's judgement in the long haul.


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