Sue Grafton is such a professional. Could she possibly have known, when she wrote A is for Alibi 20-some years ago, that she was going to work her way through the whole alphabet? Did she know that her formula would hold up, that she could produce 20 satisfying mysteries based on that template without boring us (or herself)?
Here’s how it works. T is for Trespass is narrated, naturally, by private investigator Kinsey Millhone. It’s 1987 in Santa Teresa (Santa Barbara to you) CA. There’s a predator on the loose, a sociopath named, for our purposes, Solana Rojas. Grafton alternates between Kinsey’s point of view, in the first person, and Solana’s, with an omniscient narrator. There’s a real estate subplot.
This is one of those deals where you know from the start who the bad gal is and furthermore what she’s doing, so the enjoyment, and the suspense, come from watching Grafton knit together her two plots. You know that eventually Kinsey will get her hooks into Solana — the genre tells us this. But you don’t know how she is going to pull it off.
Very skilfully, as it turns out. There’s a double ending which made me realize how important the final confrontation with the villain is to the genre. There’s a nifty pacing trick, when Kinsey finally tracks down a character she’s been pursuing — she sees him and then stops to muse about the nature of recognition of another person. It lends drama to that little confrontation. And unlike Barry Maitland,Grafton takes the trouble to give very minor characters a few traits or a speech that flesh them out into people, rather than devices.
I wonder if that’s a matter of balance. I’m not sure how you’d analyze this, but let’s say you have a finite length, 100,000 words. Is Maitland actually fitting in a lot more plot, and is that why he’s cursory with the characterization? Does Grafton put her characters through less, are there fewer narrative events, so she can tell us what Kinsey eats for lunch? The author of a mystery series has to get this balance right, because the subsidiary characters and the setting are often what keep readers coming back. If we all just wanted puzzles we’d be reading nothing but Agatha Christie.