Thursday, February 07, 2008

T Is for Trespass by Sue Grafton

T Is for Trespass is a slower, quieter book than most detective novels -- it's even slow and deliberate by Grafton's Alphabet Mystery standard, and she's been keeping the pace controlled and the focus on characterization for many years now. After a few books touching on Grafton's heroine Kinsey Milhone's long-lost relatives and the workings of the fictional California town of Santa Theresa, this time Grafton moves closer to home.

Trespass, like many mysteries before it, follows two plotlines. Also as per tradition, one of these is a case that the detective is investigating, and one is focused on events in the detective's own life. But unlike most mysteries, neither of the plots in Trespass are set off by a murder. Kinsey Milhone is investigating a fender-bender for the insurance company of the young woman driver judged to be at fault (but who swears that the van that hit her was slowing down for a turn when she pulled out -- and then sped up to hit her). And the personal plot has an even lower-key start: Kinsey's neighbor, the irascible octogenarian Gus Vronsky, has a fall and suddenly needs care on a daily basis. His only relative, a great-grandniece, does visit from New York to set up his care and see that he's recovering, but she can't take care of him herself. So she hires a nurse, and then asks Kinsey to look into the background of the woman calling herself Solana Rojas. Kinsey's initial background check shows that "Solana Rojas" is a fine nurse and a devoted worker, so she gets the job.

The reader already knows Solana is not what she seems; in a break from the usual format of the Milhone series, Grafton opened with a chapter in the third person from "Solana's" point of view. So we know Solana is a sociopath with no normal human emotions, that she has taken the identity of another nurse, and that she has cared for a number of old people over the past decade or so. Once she moves into Gus's house, she moves to isolate him and make him dependent on her -- which both Kinsey and her landlord Henry notice and are worried by. And things then escalate as they try to see Gus more often, and Kinsey digs into Solana's background.

Solana's chapters continue irregularly throughout Trespass -- every fifty pages or so, we get dropped back into her head, to learn things about her life and actions that Kinsey doesn't know yet. These chapters do their job to keep the reader informed, and to add some tension to what would otherwise be a very quiet book, but they don't recurr often enough to really provide a counterpoint with Kinsey's chapters. There's no cat-and-mouse going on here, and, despite some of Kinsey's ominous warnings, things never really get that bad.

So the pleasures and strengths of Trespass are more those of a novel of character than of a thriller: it follows Kinsey through an ordinary investigation, one that leads to secrets and interesting characters, but not to murders or other large-scale crimes. The simmering confrontation with Solana only really flares in the last third of the novel, and, even there, it's more like a spat between neighbors. There is, of course, the usual helping of danger and mayhem at the climax, but even that happens quickly and ends abruptly.

The timescale of Trespass is a bit vague; it begins in December of 1987 and covers at least several months -- how many, exactly, wasn't clear to me. It could have used a bit more placement in time, for my taste. Without the focusing lens of a mystery plot, some elements wander away from Grafton -- such as the conclusion to the car-accident plot, which fizzles out rather than snaps. But Grafton is still a fine writer, and even a novel like Trespass, which is about as far from the typical genre mystery as any series writer can go, is a muscular novel full of activity and careful depiction of character.


Anonymous said...

How is the romance subplot handled?

I've been increasingly dissatisfied with this series, and the last installment, with the rich detective/hairdresser, was just about the last straw.

Is he, hopefully, gone?

Andrew Wheeler said...

There's no romance subplot at all in this book; Milhone's relationship broke up between books and she mentions what's-his-name a few times. (I think he might show up in one or two scenes, near the end, but he's "the cop," not "the boyfriend.")

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