H Is for Happy New Year

When it comes to mysteries, I usually like cozy, village-type mysteries better than ones featuring hard-boiled detectives and on-page violence. But there are exceptions. I enjoyed Sue Grafton’s series starring P.I. Kinsey Millhone way back when she was working through the early letters of the alphabet. Then somehow I lost touch with Kinsey around “M” or “N.” But I became happily reacquainted with her when I came across the audio book version of her 2009 novel, U Is for Undertow. I was ready when the latest, V Is for Vengeance, arrived a couple of months later.

By Linda Brinson

V IS FOR VENGEANCE. By Sue Grafton. Random House Audio. Read by Judy Kaye. 15 ½ hours. 12 compact discs. $45. Also available in print from Putnam.

You have to wonder sometimes how Kinsey Millhone pays the rent. She’s forever getting involved in cases that don’t pay at all or pay little. Often, she takes what seems to be a routine assignment only to have the client run out of money or decide for other reasons not to pursue the investigation. But Kinsey’s curiosity and sense of justice drive her to ferret out the truth, even if she’s no longer being paid – and even if persistence puts her at risk.

This time, the adventure starts when Kinsey witnesses a shoplifter at work in a department store in the California city where she lives. She alerts the store’s staff and feels that she’s done a good turn when the shoplifter is caught. A few days later, she is shocked to learn that a woman who apparently committed suicide by jumping off a bridge is the shoplifter. Then things get a lot more complicated when the woman’s fiancée, an aging widower, hires Kinsey to find out the truth behind her death, which he is convinced was not suicide.

That seemingly simple shoplifting incident eventually pulls Kinsey into a web of crime, intrigue and violence that involves the mob, a dirty cop, a sophisticated shoplifting ring, a rogue gangster – among other twists, turns and threats to life and limb.

One of the appealing things about Kinsey Millhone is that she’s a likable, credible woman who happens to be a detective, rather than a tough, hardened P.I. who happens to be a woman. She’d rather use her wits than force and keeps her gun locked away most of the time. She’s had a couple of marriages that didn’t work out, but she’s not desperate for a man. The years have brought her a well-developed self-awareness that includes a sense of humor.

Judy Kaye, a Tony-winning actress who has read all the Kinsey Millhone alphabet mysteries, gets that tone and Kinsey’s personality just right.

Another thing that makes these mysteries so good is Grafton’s intricately connected plots and subplots. Nothing is ever simple; there are ripples and reactions. Grafton develops secondary plots and characters fully. The reader/listener doesn’t know for a long time how they will all be related, but it’s a sure bet that they will.  And each storyline makes for absorbing listening whenever it resurfaces.

In this book, I thought I had figured out fairly early on what the “Vengeance” would be. I was on the right track, but I still had it wrong.  The end was both surprising and satisfying. Grafton and Millhone have a strong sense of how justice doesn’t always coincide exactly with the letter of the law.

As a side note: these books, set in the 1980s, have become period pieces. When I first started reading them, I thought nothing of Kinsey’s spending hours in the library poring over city directories and maps, or having to drive considerable distances to find a telephone. Now these detailed descriptions of the detective at work remind us how much the world has changed in a relatively brief time.

I’ll be eagerly anticipating the arrival of W Is forWhatever? Or We’ll See.

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