Millhone and the murdered dead man

April 12, 1993|By Susanne Trowbridge | Susanne Trowbridge,Contributing Writer

Sue Grafton knows how to start a novel with a bang. Consider the opening sentence of her 10th mystery, " 'J' is for Judgment": "On the face of it, you wouldn't think there was any connection between the murder of a dead man and the events that changed my perceptions about my life."

The murder of a dead man? What could that possibly mean? Obviously, this is not going to be your run-of-the-mill detective story.

In 1991's " 'H' is for Homicide," private eye Kinsey Millhone was fired from California Fidelity, the insurance company she worked for part time in exchange for office space. So it comes as quite a shock when her former supervisor, Mac Voorhies, drops by her new office and asks her to take a case.

Five years ago, Mac explains, businessman Wendell Jaffe apparently killed himself by leaping off his sailboat just off the Baja coast. Jaffe's real estate investment scheme had gone bankrupt and, according to his suicide note, he couldn't face the consequences; along with hundreds of furious shareholders, he left behind a wife and two teen-age sons.

Since Jaffe's body never surfaced, his wife, Dana, had to wait five years before she could have him declared legally dead and collect his $500,000 life insurance policy. But shortly after California Fidelity paid up, one of the company's retired agents spotted Jaffe in a Mexican hotel.

Mac sends Kinsey south of the border to get hard evidence proving Jaffe is still alive. She finally spots him in the company of an exotic-looking woman, but can't get any photographs of the camera-shy couple. After she follows them around for a few days, Jaffe and his companion abruptly disappear.

When Kinsey spots a newspaper article about Jaffe's son, Brian, who's just been arrested for murder, she has a hunch that the long-absent dad will return to California to help his son. During her investigation of the troubled Jaffe clan, she receives some shocking news about her own family -- the orphaned detective who thought she was all alone in the world has a whole horde of relatives she never knew existed.

" 'J' is for Judgment" puts an irresistible spin on the traditional whodunit; since Ms. Grafton reveals Jaffe's eventual fate in the book's first sentence, we're left to figure out who'll do it. Jaffe's wife, Dana, who desperately needs that insurance money? One of his embittered sons? His girlfriend, Renata, fearing Jaffe will return to Dana? His ex-business partner, who wound up doing time in jail while Jaffe was sunning himself in Mexico?

One of the great pleasures of this series is Kinsey's smart-mouthed commentary, and "Judgment" contains plenty of her wry observations. Here, for instance, are her thoughts on ecological disaster: "Raw sewage spilling into the oceans and streams, the hole in the ozone, forests being stripped . . . It's hard to know what's actually going to get us first. Sometimes I think we should just blow up the whole planet and get it over with. It's the suspense that's killing me."

BOOK REVIEW

Title: " 'J' is for Judgment."

Author: Sue Grafton.

Publisher: Henry Holt.

Length, price: 288 pages, $21.95.

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