Sunday, January 10, 2010

U is for Undertow...pretty good

I started reading Sue Grafton in the 1990s after her books were discussed on an episode of "Northern Exposure." (It's the 5th season - Birds of a Feather/episode 77701, which aired in 1993- don't you love the internet????) Dr. Joel Fleishman's mother (a talky mystery reader who uses mysteries to avoid the problems of real life before she learns to fly like an eagle and shut up) is there for a visit, "There's always a twist," she said. That sounded good. I usually figure out the killer pretty early in a crime novel and I do like mysteries that are, well, mysterious, with a satisfying resolution.

I've read the whole series from A to U (thus far) and liked many of them pretty well. A is for Alibi remained the best in my view - the characters were fresh and new and the plot was very twisty indeed.

Although I kept reading, the recent ones have not been that good. I was figuring the solution on page 10 or it was such a mess I just didn't care. Kinsey Milhone, the detective and main character, seemed sour and bitter and not in a fun way. She seemed elderly and grumpy, not the 30-something she was supposed to be. I really found it distracting that Grafton got the dates and years all mixed up so it didn't make any sense and then she was grouchy when readers pointed it out (I think in S...).

So I was really pleased to find that U is for Undertow is pretty good. The plot is complex and its solution is interesting. Not entirely a surprise since a lot of it is provided and the only real mystery is when Kinsey will figure it out. Kinsey herself is more introspective, less bitter, and more humorous, and she is finding out things about her past that start to resolve some of the earlier issues raised in previous books about her family.

Her usual friends make appearances: Henry, Rosie, Cheyney, and Con Dolan, and they are good characters. New characters are good, especially Jon Corso, Deborah Unruh, Shawn, and Hale Brandenburg, the PI she meets who was hired to investigate Aunt Gin, who she certainly learns more about. Santa Theresa, the imaginary stand in for a California city (Santa Barbara?) is not especially evocative, although I like the scenes set in Peephole and Horton Ravine (what a Seuss-like name). I don't really feel I am in 1988 especially. The scenes set in the 1960s are better drawn, I think, although Kinsey's view of the 1960s seems odd and out of touch for someone who was 18 in 1968. The plot resoultion is satisfying and pulls together all the loose ends. Her resolution of the family issues at the end (it would be a spoiler to say more) is moving. It is pretty good, acceptable and enjoyable, but it is not "genre-bending" as described on the back cover.

In terms of the hardboiled female detective sub-genre, I also read Hardball by Sara Paretsky and Locked In by Marcia Muller recently. Both series have also recently had issues where the main character finds out about their pasts. V.I. finds out more about her parents and her dad's record as a cop in Hardball and Sharon had found out more about her ethnic identity and her past in previous. I think Locked In was a very inventive novel and very clever in that Muller has Sharon immobilized throughout the novel; that was genre bending to me! Also Sara Paretsky's view of the 60s in Hardball really rings true and provides a historical look at race relations and events in Chicago that is wonderfully written and evocative in a way that transcends the genre. Chicago is a character in the books the way the imaginary Santa Theresa is not. U is simply not as good as either of these novels and does not scale any heights but it is, as I have said, pretty good and fun to read.

1 comment:

  1. I really liked U after finding the previous ones a bit flat (though I did enjoy T). I thought U was quite a break away from Grafton's usual style in the way it contained several stories other than Kinsey's own. I found those threads quite compelling.

    Haven't read Hardball yet, must get around to it soon as it's been a long time since I've caught up with V.I.