Sue Grafton: once again almost halfway to Z

September 10, 1995|By J.D. Considine

"L Is for Lawless," by Sue Grafton. New York: Henry Holt. 290 pages. $24

As Walter Mitty-ish as it sounds, one of the enduring pleasures of detective fiction is identifying with the hero. What reader hasn't, at one time or another, imagined himself in Philip Marlowe's scuffed shoes, or felt the Ft. Lauderdale heat along with Travis McGee? Deep down, we know it's silly, but when the right combination of character, setting and terse, evocative prose come together, even the most sober reader can't help but do a little vicarious living.

Sue Grafton, though, turns that around with "L Is for Lawless," putting the detective in the reader's shoes. The 12th in her alphabet series of mysteries, "L" finds private investigator Kinsey Millhone roughly where "K" left her - still living in Henry Pitts' garage apartment and working out of an office leased from the law firm of Kingman and Ives.

In fact, so little has happened since the last book ended that as "L" begins, Kinsey is still anticipating the marriage of Henry's older brother William to her friend Rosie. It's so cozy an opening that the reader wonders what the mystery might be - until Henry mentions that one of the neighbors has a problem Kinsey might be able to help solve.

Not that it's white knight material, exactly. A neighbor named Johnny Lee has died, and his son, after years of hearing the old man boast about his exploits in Burma during World War II, figures dad ought to be due some veteran's benefits. Trouble is, the V.A. has never heard of any Johnny Lee, so the son assumes there's dirty work afoot. Initially skeptical, Kinsey is drawn in after Lee's house is burglarized and a hidden safe emptied.

So far, so good. But before long, the case spins out of control: Kinsey follows a lead out of town, gets fired by Lee's son, and finds herself in mortal danger with no real reward in sight. Yet still she pushes on, risking neck and credit limit as the reader squirms and thinks, "Don't go in there!"

Why does she do it? Not for usual detective-hero reasons like client loyalty, contractual obligation or a longing for justice; no, she keeps going for the same reason the reader does. That is, she wants to know what happened, and why.

It's a sly turn on Grafton's part. After she's drawn in, Kinsey winds up identifying with the characters whose mystery she's trying to unravel, hopelessly caught up in their struggle, and anxious to find the solution even though the line between right and wrong, much less legal and illegal, has been hopelessly blurred. And once things finally are sorted out, her pride at having cracked the case is tempered by sadness at the way those characters left her behind.

In other words, she feels the same way Grafton's readers do - both satisfied and strangely hungry for more. It's a stunning bit of role reversal, but by mirroring our own emotions, Grafton leaves Kinsey seeming even more credible than in previous volumes. A pity it will be another year before "M" lets us pick up the trail.

* J.D. Considine, The Sun's pop music critic,is author of "Van Halen!" and contributor to "The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll." His work has been published in the Village Voice, Playboy, Musicians, Rolling Stone and other journals.

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