I’ve always been impressed by the way Sue Grafton has been able to keep her franchise going. All right — not always, but since about 1990 when it became obvious that she was going to work her way right through the alphabet with her series of novels about California private investigator Kinsey Millhone. She has written 22 of these books, from A is for Alibi to V is for Vengeance, and for the most part they have been very good. (Side note: some hardworking completist has posted plot summaries for each one on Wikipedia, in case you have forgotten just what, say, L is for Lawless was about.)
Only we all get bored eventually. And it seems possible that Grafton finally wanted to break out of the rigorous structure she’d imposed on herself from the start. The conceit has always been that the novel in your hands is a report of an investigation, “Respectfully submitted, Kinsey Millhone, P.I.” The structure worked well; it allowed Kinsey to fill us in on her background and the context of her setting, which is largely the fictional town of Santa Teresa, California, known in real life as Santa Barbara. Kinsey is a mouthy, dogged frump with an underdeveloped social life and a few oddball friends; just enough clutter to make her human, not enough to interfere with the plots. Sometimes Grafton departs from Kinsey’s consciousness and gives us flashbacks as seen by an omniscient narrator, but for the most part, we stick with Kinsey’s point of view.
But in V is for Vengeance, Grafton takes a different tack. Now we’re following the experiences of several different characters. Kinsey’s still narrating in first person but the stories of loan shark Lorenzo Dante and Malibu housewife Nora (do we ever learn her last name?), are interspersed. The plotting is fine, centering around a professional shoplifting ring, though some of the exposition seemed awfully wooden. One of the crucial characters is a hapless recidivist criminal who taught Kinsey how to pick locks and whom she finds somehow lovable. I think we are supposed to as well, but I wasn’t sold. Overall the characterization seemed thin — the secondary figures are merely indicated, along with their peculiarities (Rosie the Hungarian restaurant owner, William the nonagenarian hypochondriac). Even Kinsey, whose tart good sense I’ve always enjoyed, seemed stubbornly irrational, and not that much fun. Part of the pleasure of this series has always been that Kinsey was good company. But maybe the formula is finally wearing on Grafton. After 22 novels, you can hardly blame her for wanting to change it a little bit. Maybe by W is for… she’ll have the kinks ironed out.