In Sue Grafton’s twenty previous books she’s figured out ways to vary her formula: Kinsey Milhone, her private investigator in Santa Teresa, CA, sometimes gets snagged into puzzles with their roots in the past. That gives Grafton the opportunity for extended flashbacks. The solutions to the mysteries occur differently as well: sometimes the reader knows before Kinsey does who the bad guy is. Grafton is confident and competent at taking the narrative out of Kinsey’s head, and all of these techniques keep her franchise fresh.
U is for Undertow involves an old mystery, the kidnapping and disappearance of a little girl in the mid-sixties. Kinsey gets dragged into investigating it by a young man who thinks he saw the child being buried. Turns out, he’s the original unreliable narrator, as his siblings hasten to inform Kinsey. I don’t look for too much food for thought in a mystery, but Grafton’s chewing on questions of perception and memory here, quite effectively. Can her informer Michael Sutton be trusted? And how does this reflect on her own attitude toward her family of origin? A cousin turns up with some crucial letters from her childhood; is she going to be forced to see things in a different way?
My one complaint about this book regards the climax. As I’ve said before about Grafton, she’s a real pro, and she knows she has to give us a confrontation between Kinsey and the bad guy. But in this book that confrontation felt hasty and anti-climactic, cobbled together merely for the sake of the structure. She can do better than this.
It occurs to me that maybe Grafton is using the flashbacks in these novels as practice for writing non-Kinsey novels. Surely she’s looking forward to busting out of her pattern. If nothing else, writing about a PI who can’t use a computer or a cellphone (this book is set in 1988) must get really frustrating. Just think: only five more letters of the alphabet (and I’ve always wondered what she’d do with X, Y and Z). Then we’ll get to see what else she has up her sleeve.