Grafton, Sue. W Is for Wasted.

NY: Putnam, 2013.

Well, Grafton is working her way down to the end of this thirty-year series now. You have to wonder if she understood what she was getting into back in 1982. The early part of the series was pretty good, when Kinsey Millhone and the reader existed in more or less the same continuum of the mid-1980s. Each book picks up shortly after the previous one left off, though, so while the reader has moved well into the next century, Kinsey has progressed only as far as 1988.

Grafton has said this is largely because she doesn’t want her detective to have to deal with cell phones and the Internet and modern terrorism and all that, which is understandable, but it also means the stories are becoming more and more like period pieces — especially for newer, younger readers, who weren’t even born when the series began. And the author goes to great lengths to make this disconnect clear to the reader, quoting headlines and the price of postage stamps and who’s marrying who in Hollywood.

There was also the problem that Grafton apparently got a bit tired of the series somewhere in the middle of the alphabet because there were half a dozen books around that point that were sloppily plotted and lacked the basic research of settings that one expects a professional to have carried out. Then she got herself back under control (I suspect a strong editorial hand), and the last few volumes have been well above average. They’ve also displayed new writing methods, including multiple narrative viewpoints and actual historical cases as the bases for plots.

The story this time actually involves two separate plot lines that eventually come together, developing out of two deaths in Santa Theresa. The first is the murder by shooting of Pete Wolinsky a few months before, down near the beach, apparently in a robbery. Pete was a PI of the most disreputable sort, a con man willing to scam clients as far as he could get away with it; Kinsey and the other people who knew him were careful not to become professionally involved with him, and they never gave him work. Still, Pete was a likable sort of person, despite everything, and his colleagues didn’t actually hate him — usually.

The other death is of a homeless alcoholic, whose corpse is discovered in his sleeping bag in the dunes at the beach. He had Kinsey’s name and phone number in his pocket, so the Coroner’s office asks her to come in and try to identify the guy. Nope, she doesn’t know him. But that slip of paper gnaws at her curiosity so, since she doesn’t have any paying work at the moment, she begins poking around, interviewing the man’s equally homeless buddies and following up what little they can tell her. And before long, she’s startled at the appearance of a very personal connection with the dead man. Kinsey, raised as an orphan by her Aunt Gin, has recently made — or been forced into — contact with her mother’s side of the family, which she’s still coming to terms with. Now she begins to turn up information about her father’s people, who are quite a different bunch. And then there’s all that unexpected money, guaranteed to bring out the worst in nearly everyone. And the reappearance of a couple of Kinsey’s previous love interests.

It’s hard to say much more than that without giving away the story, except that the underlying themes this time (Grafton usually has a theme) are the plight of the homeless and malfeasance in medical research. In terms of quality, I’d put this one right in the middle of the pack. The first two-thirds or so of the narrative proceeds at, shall we say, a rather leisurely pace. If she had maintained this all the way through, Grafton would have been looking at an 800-page novel instead of not quite 500 pages, so she suddenly cranks things up, with the last half-dozen chapters passing almost in a blur. (She’s pulled this stunt before.) And, while everything pretty much comes together, the author also leaves a few things annoyingly unresolved. Are the police ever going to do anything about young Felix’s murder? Is the deal-cutting Bad Guy really not going to be charged with Pete’s murder?

So, while this isn’t really a bad book, it could have been much, much better. Well, Grafton is in her seventies now (a decade older than Kinsey), and I guess all we can hope for is that is that she lives another five or six years. Some day, when everything has been wrapped up, I guess I will have to go back to the very beginning, and re-read the whole series. But not just yet.

Published in: on 15 December 2013 at 2:59 pm  Leave a Comment  
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