Guest review by Janelle Bailey, retired Literature teacher.
This was our Reading Leaders Book Club selection for March, and I may not otherwise have ever picked it up. At a steady member’s suggestion and offering of this month’s book, we went “old school” Sue Grafton, allllll the way back to her first Kinsey Millhone book, book #1, and also all the way back to the 1980s and Grafton’s very first of her 25-book “alphabet series,” A is for Alibi through Y is for Yesterday, the last and published in August of 2017 prior to Grafton’s death in December of the same year.
This was an interesting book to read for a number of reasons, including my patent reluctance to read “mysteries” or “thrillers” or much of anything “best-selling” or purely commercially successful, even, just as I have friends who insist they only read fiction or never read fiction or never (never say never!) read short stories, poetry, essays, etc.
But as soon as I posted a request to borrow a copy of A is for Alibi, I very quickly learned that I have lots—and lots!–of friends who are steady Grafton fans, who have read every single one of the 25 and other Graftons as well. And the number of folks willing to lend me their copy of this book was…honestly, both heartwarming and FUN! There was kind of a race to see who could get theirs to me first, several indicating how excited they were to own a book I wanted to read and did not myself own that they could lend me, rather than the other way around.
So, I read it. And I did not hate it. But I did not “love” it either.
One of the aspects that I did enjoy had to do with going all the way back to the early 80s and noting how very far we have come, technologically speaking, since Grafton wrote this, with all of her references to her “answering service,” and to leaving numbers for people as to where she could next be contacted, etc., etc. It is truly challenging to reflect on how things “used to be” when they have changed so steadily and steeply these past 30+ years. Surely Kinsey Millhone would not only be doing much of her research but also organizing her notes, I would think, with the aid of a computer or device—at the very least a cell phone—and with the help of the internet. Additionally, I enjoyed the visit to Santa Teresa, California. Though a fictitious city, it definitely felt like 1980s California, and I liked that.
It was the character development that rather tripped me up. First, there were just way too many characters to keep track of and with far too little (or too much of it too cliche) to distinguish them one from another. I do wonder whether that is maybe something that Grafton herself wrote better the more she wrote, such that the characters “improve” in value, description, consistency, etc., as the “alphabet series” goes. Kinsey herself, even, is a bit of a contradiction at times (aren’t we all, I guess?!), but it made it challenging for me to get to know her, care about her, be truly invested in her (in just this single book, anyway)…let alone consider reading 24 more books with her as the main character (I presume). She’s twice-divorced, has no children, seems at times to live and work out of her car but also sleeps at dumpy motel after dumpy motel, with enough frequency that she uses their reception desks as an alternate answering service as well.
Some good but too brief discussion did ensue when I returned the book to its lender, as she recalled the college course for which she had read it and how they had approached a particular genre of literature from as many different angles as there were authors writing in it, kind of how many different ways there were to slice that particular pie. Very interesting.
If you’re a Grafton fan, I likely don’t need to tell you what this book is about. And if you’ve never read one, well…you likely want to consider starting with this one as well. That way you can meet Kinsey Millhone at the beginning and as Grafton intended and get to know her as she conducts this investigation into an eight-year-old murder case—nope, two!—and finds herself in a hot mess of it, too.
The Sue Grafton fans as well as the mystery fans, period, were valuably vocal at book club discussing this book and Grafton’s writing in general, as well as other mystery authors like Janet Evanovich, Ann Cleeve, Nevada Barr, Diane Mott Davidson, J. A. Jance, and more; all write mysteries of some sort but have carved particular niches for themselves as well. And most of the Grafton fans indicated that they really came to enjoy and appreciate Kinsey Millhone as a strong woman and female character, that she gave them someone to appreciate as a successful gal in the 80s in an unexpected career and role for women at that time. I can get on board with that idea. So maybe…maybe I’ll read another.