Saturday, February 25, 2012
Take V is for Vengeance, for example, which is the 22nd alphabetically-organized mystery from Sue Grafton. It begins with a scene set two years before the main action of the book -- 1986 and 1988, respectively; Grafton began this series with 1982's A is for Alibi, and she's kept her timeline anchored at the beginning, rather than the end like most series -- in which a young man is killed, and the reader settles in to expect a story of vengeance. We expect it to be vengeance for him, but any old vengeance would do, really.
But there's no vengeance to be found in V Is For Vengeance, and a reader may well suspect that Grafton is now just working from a list of Acceptable Mystery Title Words, and writing whatever book she feels like under that title. It's another story in which her series hero Kinsey Milhone wanders around, diligently investigating something, while a barely related plot goes on in scattered chapters from other points of view -- a style she's indulged for several books now, and which is working less and less well the more she works with it. (T is for Trespass -- see my review -- was quiet and mainstream-novel-esque, but still worked pretty well, while U is for Undertow -- my review is here -- had a half-baked twenty-years-ago Ross Macdonaldesque subplot that dragged the whole thing into family saga territory while managing to avoid the strengths of both that and the mystery novel.)
This book actually does have a murder in it -- not just the one in the opening chapter, I mean, but a real murder that Milhone investigates. But she doesn't know it's a murder until late in the book -- though the readers do, robbing ever more potential tension and deductive opportunities from our reading of the book -- and so has no sense of urgency. Grafton also crafts several dialogue scenes, particularly those of Milhone with her client (the man who hired her to investigate that neither-one-of-them-know-it's-a-murder-yet), so that she communicates primarily on an emotional level instead of presenting actual facts, thus allowing the plot to rumble forward blandly yet further.
There is a large criminal enterprise in V Is For Vengeance, but it's doubly disappointing. First, we have a number of chapters from the point of view of its overlord, who we see to be a decent man trying to do at least the sort-of right thing, making him feel like the love interest from a minor contemporary romance. And, from those chapters, we already know the scope of the criminal enterprise, which is bland and severely lacking in any of the thrills one hopes to find in organized crime.
At this point, I have to call Grafton's current style in the alphabet books a failure: she's pushing Milhone out of the center of her stories, losing tension and other core virtues of the mystery novel, and not gaining anything at all but bulk from her additional material. If she really wants to write a Milhone book from her heroine's POV and that of someone else, she really needs to create a villain -- and one that's actually doing something both fiendish and interesting -- and use that character for her third-person chapters the next time out. Using her third-person subplot chapters to delineate a massively sidebar late-in-life romance between a crimelord with a conscience and a bored, cuckolded  female socialite is a massive waste of novel space and her reader's time.
There is a character in this book who could be that villain, if she wants to use him the next time out. I hope she does: Grafton may have been stumbling in these last few books, but there's a strong history of excellent, gripping mystery novels behind those books, and she can easily get back to that mode if she wants to.
 Is it really "cuckolded" when the person cheated on is female? Or is there some other, more appropriate term, like "wife with a rich husband"?