Grafton's 'K' is the series' most haunting

April 11, 1994|By Susanne Trowbridge | Susanne Trowbridge,Special to The Sun

In " 'J' Is for Judgment," last year's installment of Sue Grafton's alphabetical mystery series, private eye Kinsey Millhone got the surprise of her life when she discovered a whole slew of relatives she never knew existed. Readers expecting a family reunion in the new book may be disappointed -- orphaned loner Kinsey is still mulling her options regarding her newfound kinfolk. Aside from that loose end, though, there's hardly a dissatisfying moment to be found in " 'K' Is for Killer," Ms. Grafton's darkest and most haunting book yet.

"The victims of unsolved homicides I think of as the unruly dead; persons who reside in a limbo of their own, some state between life and death, restless, dissatisfied, longing for release," Kinsey reflects. "In that hazy zone where wakefulness fades into sleep, in that leaden moment just before the mind sinks below consciousness, I can sometimes hear them murmuring. They mourn themselves. They sing a lullaby of the murdered."

Kinsey attempts to appease the unsettled ghost of Lorna Kepler, a beautiful young woman whose decomposing corpse was found in her secluded cabin. Her killer was never found, and 10 months after her daughter's death, Janice Kepler is unable to let go; she is desperate to solve Lorna's murder and turns to Kinsey for help. The detective accepts the case, although Janice's husband, Mace, and their two surviving daughters would prefer to drop the whole matter and get on with their lives.

Kinsey soon discovers that Lorna was far from the angelic creature her parents imagined her to be. She worked part-time as a secretary at a water treatment plant, but at night, she led a very different life -- Lorna worked as a hooker and had even starred in an X-rated movie.

In order to find her killer, Kinsey must enter Lorna's two worlds, meeting the people she worked with in both her straight daytime life and her kinky, late-night existence.

One of her nighttime friends was a disc jockey named Hector Moreno, who attempts to explain to Kinsey what Lorna was like: "Lorna flirted with disaster every day of her life," he says. "If you want my theory, fear was the only real sensation she felt. Danger was like a drug. She had to boost the dose. She couldn't help herself. . . . She was like an addict, a junkie."

" 'K' Is for Killer" isn't as electrifying as some of Ms. Grafton's earlier novels; Kinsey's investigation unfolds at a deliberate pace, without the full-throttle thrills of her wildest cases. What makes this book click is its strong sense of atmosphere, evocative of an earlier generation of noir detective novels, and the finely drawn characters Kinsey encounters during her probe.

Particularly striking are a young prostitute, Danielle, whose mixture of sweetness and bravado drives the detective to befriend her, and Lorna's two sullen sisters, both aggravated by the fact that she's still receiving the lion's share of their mother's attention, even months after her death.

As Kinsey immerses herself in the night world, she begins to notice things like the color of the darkened sky, "a soft charcoal gray, nearly chalky with light pollution, the trees like ink stains on a darkened carpet." Somehow the rules seem different, too; issues such as justice and murder and mercy aren't as clear-cut as they appear to be in the stark light of day.

Complex and masterful, " 'K' Is for Killer" shows that even after 11 Millhone mysteries, Ms. Grafton is still capable of coming up with fresh twists and new approaches, making it a worthy addition to a stellar series.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: " 'K' Is for Killer"

Author: Sue Grafton

Publisher: Henry Holt

Length, price: 286 pages, $20

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