Thursday, June 17, 2010

My Favourite Series "U is for Undertow" by Sue Grafton

I have been reading the Sue Grafton alphabet series for nearly twenty years.  In this review I not only want to review U is for Undertow but try and capture why I love this humble detective series as much as I do.

Let's start with U is for Undertow, the most recent addition to the series.  Kinsey Millhone is a private detective in her late thirties.  She resides in Santa Teresa California and it is the 1980s.  Most of Kinsey's work seems to revolve around pretty ordinary PI fare: investigating insurance claims and that sort of thing.  But every now and again she has to risk life and limb to uncover the truth behind something truly scandalous or down right diabolical.

In U is for Undertow Kinsey is hired to investigate a recovered memory. Mark Sutton has sought Kinsey's help because after seeing a newspaper article on historical kidnappings in the area, he recalled a childhood memory from 1967 that troubles him.  His memory involves seeing two young men bury what he believes to be a body in the woods.  Mark believes he can tie the timing of this burial to the date in 1967 when four year old Mary Claire was kidnapped from her parents back yard never to be seen again, despite a ransom being paid for her recovery.  Mark strongly believes his memory and the kidnapping are connected. 

Kinsey agrees to do some preliminary digging into this case.  It gets very murky, Mark Sutton is seriously discredited as unreliable by his family.  While the location of the mysterious digging event is discovered, it is a large dog's body that is unearthed.  This may seem to be the end of the matter except that the owners of the property where the dog's body was found also endured a kidnapping of their adopted daughter at a similar time to the disappearance of Mary Claire.  The property owner's adopted daughter was however returned unharmed.

The "undertow" of the title relates to pulling effect of past unresolved events on the present. As with all of the Kinsey Millhone series this is a wonderful study in human relations.

Why do I love these books?  Because Kinsey feels so real.  I have read an enormous amount of crime fiction.  A lot of us have.  It is ubiquitous. From Minette Walters to the Kellermans, Reichs, Patricia Cornwell, Elizabeth George, Ian Rankin, Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell, Janet Evanovich, JD Robb, Peter Temple and many many others.  Let's face it, crime fiction is everywhere.  So yeh I suppose I am revealing myself here as, at least, a former crime fiction junkie.  It is great escapism.  But that is for another blog post...  My point is, of all of these, Sue Grafton is my hands down favourite.

I feel very reassured when I open up a Kinsey Millhone mystery.  The magic is in the detail.  When PI Kinsey Millhone walks into a room to question someone, the reader walks in with her.  Sue Grafton has a wonderful ability to create a scene with a few perfect little strokes. Through Kinsey's observations of place and nuance we experience all of the subtleties of the person she is speaking with. Sue Grafton can embody a character from the litter in the character's lounge room or the manner in which the character flicks the ash from a cigarette.  I strongly feel that her ability to create nuanced, well fleshed out characters is a rarity in this genre.  And it is not just Kinsey herself who is believable but all of the characters. 

Chapters in each of the novels generally alternate from first person Kinsey narrative, to chapters of third person narrative from the perspectives of various other characters in the story.  Grafton then seamlessly brings Kinsey and those she is chasing together.

The novels vary in the degree of Kinsey story building. U is for Undertow has less of the ongoing Kinsey character development than other novels.  It is not worse off because of this.  Compared to some of the others U is for Undertow is dense in plot and parallel plots involving the investigative mystery and there is not as much scope as there has been in previous books for Kinsey story development.

To put my feelings for these books in perspective, I think I started reading them when I was about 18 and Kinsey was in her early thirties, in the first, A is for Alibi.  Over the subsequent 19 books Kinsey has aged slowly to 37, which is just about my age now.  It is my understanding that Sue Grafton intends to end the series when Kinsey turns forty.  It is clear from her writing that Sue Grafton loves this character, and over the course of the books (although admittedly I was hooked from the first) the reader grows to love her too. 

Kinsey is a character who is a pleasure to return to.  We experience her haphazard love life, her less is more and often appalling sense of dress, her questionable grooming (Kinsey who is an astute judge of detail in others cuts her own mop of hair with nail scissors), her unusual health and fitness regime that combines  rigorous morning jogs with a penchant for junk food and her wonderful octogenarian landlord and his siblings as well as a host of other neighbourhood characters.

I think some of the appeal of the books is that they are set in the '80s.  Kinsey's sleuthing takes place without the benefit of the Internet, satellite tracking or mobile phones.  For me Kinsey works so well as a character because from A is for Alibi to U is for Undertow and the 18 books in between she develops slowly but is consistent with what we already know.  Because the books generally take place in and around Santa Teresa her investigative work often overlaps with bits and pieces from her own past and so we build up a gradual picture.  As with all series, some of the novels are better than others.  I am delighted to say that the most recent two, for me, were as good if not better than any of the others in the series.

I guess the question is, do the novels stand on their own? Can they be read independently?  I am possibly not the best person to ask being such a devotee. Grafton does repeat the salient facts of Kinsey's life at the beginning of each book, and strangely enough I do not get tired of reading them.  However if given the chance why wouldn't one start at the beginning and get to know Kinsey chronologically?

I have been keen to blog about this series of books because I do sometimes think that all of the crime fiction genre is tarred with the one brush and dismissed as pulp fiction.  I would encourage anyone to give Sue Grafton a go.  She plugs into something meaningful and often poignant in each of these books. 

As a slight post script, I should add that from the list of crime writers above I also really enjoyed  Peter Temple's latest offering "Truth" and will be reviewing it in the near future.


  1. I am a fan of Kinsey's too and have read all the books as they've been published. I like some more than others of course but as a whole it is one of the few series that I have stuck with over time, and I thought 'U' was one of the best of the series - different from many of the others but really insightful and a great yarn too.

  2. Thanks for stopping by Bernadette and I agree that U was better than some of the others. This is a wonderful sign I think as so often the quality deteriorates as the series progresses, which is very disappointing when you have followed a series faithfully. There appears to be no "resting on her laurels" with Sue Grafton.

  3. I remember you reading these with Mum. I am still to pick up "A". You have sparked my curiosty although the detective/crime books aren't usually my thing.

  4. SOK - What is good about the Kinsey myteries is that there is less of that shock value violence/abuse that does put many off this genre.

  5. I have been meaning to read this series for the longest time but still haven't managed to read A yet! Thanks for the reminder.

  6. They are delightful Marg. Hope you enjoy them.


Comments are very welcome.