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Friday, November 19, 2010

U Is for Undertow, by Sue Grafton ($7.99)

It's been awhile since I've read one of the alphabet books. After I thought Kinsey Millhone wussed out at the end of one of the books, I grew uninterested in her goings on. I managed to stay distant through a few more of the letters, but the premise of this book sounded so intriguing that I decided to renew my acquaintance with Santa Teresa's most famous P.I. This is the thing: Nobody does it better than Sue Grafton. She still does one of the best jobs opening and closing a book, setting up the scene, reintroducing us over and over to Kinsey, and putting us in a place and time.

The place is the fictional town of Santa Teresa and the time is 1988. A young man asks Kinsey to investigate a memory. He says that as a six-year-old he saw two men bury a bag in the woods next to a middle class subdivision. As an adult he realized that it was right around the time of the kidnapping and disappearance of a young girl in 1967. It was a sensation at the time, and over the years people assumed the young girl was dead, although her body was never found. (To accommodate all the reader needs to know, part of the book is first-person Kinsey and the rest is a third-person narrative that follows several people who lived in the area.) So Sutton, the grown-up little boy, is convinced that what the men were burying was the little girl, and he wants Kinsey to find the spot. Based on Sutton's scant memories, Kinsey works the clues step by elusive step.

Instead of telling you what Kinsey and Sutton find -- because if you read this book, you have every right to be as surprised as I was by the revelations -- let me just say that this was a very satisfying book. I learned what a wuss I was for having given up on Sue Grafton. This is why she is a good writer: She doesn't beat her readers over their heads with the clues. She lets the pieces fall in place for them, too. At the end, she doesn't say that this plus that plus this other thing equals the aha! moment. I was impressed by how she slowly and carefully unfolded the story, and how she created her moments of tension and sadness seemingly without effort.

Another part of the book deals with Kinsey's newfound family. Her wealthy grandmother and other relations have been trying to draw Kinsey into the family fold. After years of neglect by this family, she isn't buying into any warm, fuzzy feelings for them. Once again, Grafton's tremendous strength as a writer is on display with this side story. Real people, real feelings -- really, really well done.

I have awarded this book an MBTB star.

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