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Saturday, November 9, 2013

W Is for Wasted by Sue Grafton

Putnam, 496 pages, $28.95

In these days of “The Girl Who” and Gone Girl women, Kinsey Millhone is an anachronism, and not the least because Sue Grafton has most excellently kept her heroine in the 1980s. Kinsey doesn’t kick posteriors, anteriors, interiors, or anything. Given a choice, she hides in trash barrels, backs up slowly, runs away quickly. During a serious scene in this book, she has the equivalent of a bitch-slap fight with the murderer, using a lawn chair. That must be why so many of us love her. If you have come to Sue Grafton for neo-noir, ask for your money back.

First of all, I needed to get over the fact that Grafton didn’t title this book “W Is for Wanted.” (Surely many of us had anticipated what she would name her remaining books.) I still hold out hope for “X Is for Xavier,” as Grafton ventures out into X-Men territory; “Y Is for Yell Loudly,” keeping to the wuss persona that Kinsey has maintained; and “Z Is for Ze End,” in which Kinsey takes off for Paris to help the Sûreté.

Did I like W Is for Wasted? Well, duh, yes. In my opinion, very few authors are able to create as endearing, slightly dysfunctional, funny, nice, and ept (as opposed to inept) a character as Kinsey. I fell off the Kinsey wagon somewhere around “I” but have returned with born-again fervor to the fold. I don’t care what the mystery is anymore. I just want to finish the alphabet journey hand-in-hand with Grafton and Kinsey.

Grafton wafts the soft breeze of remembrance over the whole book. There are references to just about every quirk and important character. Peanut butter and pickle sandwiches? Bring it on. Her aunt, her newly discovered grandmother, past cars, Henry’s renovations, regimented cleaning of her apartment? It’s all there. Robert Dietz, a former flame, makes an appearance, as do other men in her life. At one point, Kinsey remarks that all the men she has slept with over the last six years are together in one room, not that that leads to overcrowding! Grafton allows us to wallow in reminiscence. She also places us firmly in 1980s Santa Teresa.

Santa Theresa. It’s almost real. It’s a thinly disguised Santa Barbara, an homage to Ross Macdonald. But Grafton’s Santa Theresa is her own creation, too. Kinsey’s P.I. offices, past and present, her work history from police officer to P.I., Henry’s home, Rosie’s tavern, the beach where she runs — they’re all mentioned in W and are all real, brought to life over the years by Grafton’s skill.

In W Is for Wasted, we meet more bizarre characters from Kinsey’s family. Until we met members of Kinsey’s mother’s family a few books ago, the only relative we knew about was Aunt Gin. After Kinsey’s parents died in a car accident, Aunt Gin raised her and effectively crossed out any other member of the family. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

As mentioned in the prologue, two men die and their deaths change Kinsey’s life. One is Pete Wolinsky, an “unscrupulous private detective,” who was murdered recently. In a separate third-person narrative, in contrast to Kinsey's first-person voice, Pete’s last case is described and, it is assumed, that case will eventually intersect with Kinsey’s life. The second dead man was one of the homeless people who now roam Santa Theresa. Grafton depicts their situation with humanity and depth of feeling. Inexplicably, because she’s never met him, R. T. Dace has named her the executor and sole recipient of his estate. Ha, ha, you say, “his estate.” (I can see you making air quotes, you know.) Dace, it turns out, had been wrongly incarcerated for murder and the State has paid up to the tune of $600,000. After his release, battling alcoholism and a broken life, Dace voluntarily chose the homeless community for comfort and companionship. And that money now belongs to Kinsey. Sort of. Maybe.

Without going into too much detail because of the surprise factor, I’ll just say that Grafton takes the time to make a social comment on the situation of homeless people and aspects of the medical research community. So it’s not just about Kinsey and the furthering of her background story.

As the series, I assume, draws to a close — I can’t imagine Grafton will continue after “Z” (1, 2, 3? AA, BB, CC? Chaos?) — it seems Grafton is giving us some closure.

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