Still in the '80s, and still terrific

December 09, 2007|By Dick Lochte | Dick Lochte,Los Angeles Times

T is for Trespass

By Sue Grafton

Putnam Adult / 400 pages / $26.95

It's been two years since Sue Grafton's previous alphabet mystery - S is for Silence - and, judging by her newest, the vacation has invigorated both her and her series star, Kinsey Millhone. The latter, as mystery lovers know, is a street-smart private detective plying her perilous trade in Santa Teresa, a California coastal city bearing more than a coincidental similarity to the Santa Barbara area, where the author resides.

One thing that even die-hard fans may forget (especially when plots include such hot topic ingredients as, in this case, elder-care abuse, pedophilia and identity theft) is that Kinsey does her sleuthing in the mid-1980s.

The first series entry, A is for Alibi, was set in 1982, the year in which it was published. Nineteen books and a quarter of a century later, Kinsey and her world have aged only five years. Grafton uses her control of time's passage not only to keep her heroine young and vital but to free her from such modern-day suspense-zappers as cellular phones, the Internet and wireless-everythings. In this particularly well-crafted novel, the detective is kept on the go by three different but intertwined investigations.

If the book were not set in the technological dark ages, Kinsey might have used her iPhone to save a lot of road wear on her blue Mustang as well as to summon help during one or two nearly fatal brushes with the villains. But what fun would readers find in that? Instead, we have a ceaselessly engrossing thriller in which Millhone is pitted against several adversaries.

One of them, Solana Rojas, is a devious and homicidal black widow who, having usurped the identity of a legitimate health caretaker, is spinning a web around Gus Vronsky, an aged and infirm neighbor of the detective. Added to that are a couple of less personal but no less intriguing cases: Kinsey's search for a mystery man who disappeared after witnessing a traffic accident and a seemingly simple issuing of an eviction notice that turns wet and nasty.

The danger next door is given prominence, of course, evolving like a malevolent chess game that Kinsey, though apparently overmatched to a fatal degree, plays on gamely.

But it is in the details of the other two investigations - the detective's interviewing processes, the ways she reads people and their environments, the clever tricks and devices she uses to get the job done - that Grafton builds both credibility for her protagonist and strength for her story.

She's not the first crime novelist to arrive at the 20 mark in a popular series, but she may be the first to do so without a strong reliance on formula. Whodunits, bodyguarding, recoveries, manhunts, hostage negotiation - all have been grist for Kinsey's mill.

Some of the novels have been lean and hard-boiled. Some have spent much of their time chronicling the comings and goings of Kinsey's friends - her octogenarian landlord and father-figure Henry Pitts, his insufferable older brother William as well as Rosie (last name unknown because Kinsey can't pronounce it), owner of the neighborhood tavern and William's paramour. In T is for Trespass, we get just the right combination of both, plus an added jolt of suspense when Henry's mildly amusing rocky romance with an aggressive real estate agent morphs into something considerably more sinister.

Kinsey remains the series' one constant -by turns funny, moody, shrewd, loyal, profane, tough and vulnerable. In a word, human. That humanity is most evident in her always-amusing self-delusional justifications for a lifestyle somewhat less than ideal. In Trespass, she confides: "My evening meal consisted of a peanut-butter-and-pickle sandwich on whole wheat bread with a handful of corn chips, which I'm almost certain could be considered a grain. I grant you peanut butter is nearly 100 percent fat, but it's still a good source of protein. Further, there was bound to be a culture somewhere that classified a bread-and-butter pickle as a vegetable."

Let any of today's hard-boiled gourmet sleuths or food-cozy heroines try to top that for garnering reader empathy.

Dick Lochte writes for the Los Angeles Times.

EXCERPT

"To the cynics among us, I must sound like an idiot, but I do hold to the good, working wherever possible to separate the wicked from that which profits them. I know there will always be someone poised to take advantage of the vulnerable: the very young, the very old, and the innocent of any age. I know this from long experience. Solana Rojas was one."

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