With Grafton's latest, `S' is for `so-so'

Review Mystery


S Is For Silence

Sue Grafton

Marin Wood/Putnam / 375 pages

It's difficult to think of Sue Grafton without one specific word embedding itself in the brain: endurance. As soon as she published her first alphabetical mystery, in 1982, one could see how arduous a task it might be to continue all the way to the letter Z while keeping each book separate and reasonably fresh. Twenty-three years on the end is a lot closer in sight, but unfortunately it's proving to be more of a limp than a sprint to the finish line.

It isn't because Grafton is coasting. With Silence, she takes the opportunity to try something different, at least for her: multiple points of view. It's a device that allows the story to open up and showcase other voices besides her private investigator heroine, Kinsey Millhone. The problem is that theory isn't practice, and the parts don't add up to a sum that equates to a compelling read.

The tale begins promisingly when Daisy Sullivan seeks Kinsey out with a particularly intriguing case: In 1953, when Daisy was 7 years old, her mother, Violet, went out for what was supposed to be a short walk, never to return. Thirty-four years later, the disappearance haunts Daisy so much that she's never been able to escape its long shadow. With retainer in hand and a deadline to produce (Daisy can only pay for five days), Kinsey mines the secret pasts of various folks in the fictional town of Santa Teresa for answers that will take her into unsettling territory.

In addition to the present-day narrative (which takes place in 1987, thereby denying Kinsey use of the Internet or cell phones to conduct her investigation), Grafton doles out necessary information using flashbacks set at the time of Violet's disappearance.

It's a reasonably effective device because these additional points of view illuminate the book's main theme of how the promise of love often leads to thwarted, even devastating, outcomes. There is Violet, rumored to be the town slut, carrying on an affair as she raises baby Daisy; and Liza, a young teen in the midst of first love who embraces Violet's offer of friendship with a fervor that her childhood best friend, the religiously minded Kathy Cramer, can't provide. Then there are the husbands and callow youths whose lives are irrevocably changed by their contact with Violet - which makes them all the more suspect so many years later.

These new voices should add a healthy dose of intrigue, but every time Kinsey returns to narrate, one can't help but be reminded that she continues to be a frustratingly nondescript character. Sure, she's a professional investigator and does her job well enough here, but there's little sense of how deeply - if at all - she's affected by the case at hand. With so many other potentially compelling characters competing for attention, the result is a story shoehorned into a Kinsey vehicle when it may have worked better as a daughter's search for her mother by mining her past.

In other words, the very thing that should have made S is for Silence a strong effort in this series may be the root cause of its failure. It might take a Herculean effort to prevent the next installment of the adventures of Kinsey Millhone from being titled T is for Tepid.

Sarah Weinman reviews crime fiction monthly for The Sun. Visit her at www.sarahweinman. com.

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