Thursday, April 15, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 71 (4/15) -- U Is For Undertow by Sue Grafton

Everybody wants more respect, especially these days. (Perhaps because there seems to be so little of it to go around.) And everyone seems to want whatever respect they don't already have -- musicians want to be actors, actors want to be musicians, popular writers want to be taken seriously.

And that brings us to Sue Grafton, who started one of the great mystery series of our time back in 1982 with A Is For Alibi, a novel with one of the best examples of the then-burgeoning cohort of female private detectives and which showed that Grafton had learned from Chandler and Macdonald, but was ready to write her own way into the PI-soaked Southern California landscape. Many excellent books followed, but, at some point in the last decade or so, Grafton apparently tired of just being one of the best mystery writers working and set her sights on The Novel. The last half-dozen alphabet mystery books have aspired to the quality of The Novel, some with more success than others. Grafton has kept her books centered on a mystery plot, thankfully, but that plot has been the launching point for various other writerly diversions, which have not always had all that much to do with the ostensible core of the book, and have not always been completely successful.

Undertow, the twenty-first novel in the series, focuses on the kidnapping and murder of a little girl twenty-one years earlier. However, since the alphabet mysteries have kept their own timeline since Alibi -- roughly two and a half books to a calendar year -- it's still 1988 in the coastal city of Santa Teresa, where Kinsey Milhone still pursues her investigations. So the frame story is twenty-ish years in our past, and the murder Milhone is investigating is twenty-some further years in her past. The deliberate anchoring of the alphabet mystery timeline hasn't consistently felt like a mistake, but it does so here -- the hippies and flower children that romp through the flashbacks of this novel are a good forty years in the past; they're artifacts from a world before I was even born, and the doubly-distanced narrative they're part of is clunky and old-fashioned.

Even worse, there are huge holes in this investigation -- there's a point at which Milhone causes something to be dug up (quite literally), and it's the completely wrong thing. She dances around an explanation, but the reader can see Grafton frantically juggling, and the explanation for the continued investigation doesn't make sense. Realistically, that was a dead end, and there's an even deader end close to the close of the book. From a writing point of view, it looks like Grafton wanted to do something elegant -- she has Milhone mention, on the first page, that this is first case she "ever managed to resolve without crossing paths with the bad guys" -- and that it didn't come off quite right, but Grafton didn't fix it, either.

Like the last few books, Undertow sees Milhone pursue a low-key investigation while a more interesting plot goes on elsewhere -- in this case, it mostly goes on back in the early and mid '60s, in an occasionally clumsy third-person voice (that intrudes into the present-day Milhone sections as well, when there's information that Grafton can't manage to have Milhone learn directly). The present-day plot is borderline dull, and retains interest mostly because of the reader's residual affection for Milhone and her milieu; the flashback sections are written professionally, but aren't nearly as compelling as Grafton wants them to be.

And so, in the end, Undertow is a long, meandering hybrid of a traditional PI novel and something like a family saga, without quite doing either one justice. The writing is also flat and obvious much of the time, particularly as Grafton drags out the old furniture of the series for one more go-round. There's still life in the alphabet mysteries, I hope, but, with this book, they're looking more and more like the genre-fiction Gasoline Alley.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Pink Floyd - Careful With That Axe, Eugene
via FoxyTunes


Major Major said...

If there's still life in the alphabet mysteries, there ought to be a collection to buy Sue Grafton a copy of On Beyond Zebra! She's going to run out of letters.

Unknown said...

Yes, this. I still buy them and read them, but my affection for them has dimmed considerably. I wish more mystery writers were either in a position to afford to and/or willing to do what Dennis Lehane did with the Kenzie/Gennaro books and take a long break when it starts feeling stale.

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