The new Sue Grafton. Of course I bought it. Didn’t think much about the title: asked recently how far Grafton had gotten in the alphabet, I said, “V.” (Which was “… for Vengeance.“) The alphabet titles aren’t always strong descriptors of these novels, but this time, when Grafton says W is for Wasted she means it. Because two of the dead guys in this novel are homeless. You could say they were “wasted” as in drunk or high. Or you could think what a waste their lives were — or you could think what a waste their deaths were. That’s where Grafton wants you to go. She creates well-rounded portraits of several homeless characters in this novel and though they may by turns be annoying or sad or clever or intemperate, she’s compassionate. And she wants you to be, too.
I don’t mean to put you off. It’s rare for a totally functional piece of escape fiction to double effectively as an issue novel. Rare, too, for extensive research to be so well-integrated into a plot-driven piece of fiction. Grafton manages to hit both of those marks here, and I’m impressed. W is for Wasted moves along quite slowly (it’s close to 500 pages) but it never stops moving forward. Maybe more to the point, there is one complex plot that pulls together several different threads. I recently began Elizabeth George’s Just One Evil Act which is another new, longer-than-usual book from a longtime favorite author. It had such a frantic quality that I gave up halfway through; George seemed to be writing two books at once and giving all the characters short shrift. Grafton doesn’t do that; long ago she chose to make her narrator Kinsey Millhone smart, plainspoken, and highly observant. Reasonable traits in a private detective. Kinsey also has a wry sense of humor, which adds sparkle to the story-telling. In W is for Wasted, Kinsey meets some new relatives whom she doesn’t take to. Her dislike is highly enjoyable, but it’s not extraneous. The cousins are necessary.
I’ve often held Grafton up as a model author of a long series whose excellence has rarely flagged. Her subsidiary characters have enough flaws to be refreshing and Grafton doesn’t wheel them onstage unless they’re required. There’s a lot of variety in the crimes, the solutions rarely feel cheap, and the setting (Santa Teresa, CA, standing in for Santa Barbara) offers plenty of variety. Hey, in this book, we get to go to Bakersfield, folks. That’s not nothing. And there’s a cat. Do I need to say more?
Would it have been more elegant if Grafton hadn’t had to cut away from Kinsey’s first-person narrative to third-person segments from another character’s point of view? Yes. Those sections were jarring to get into, jarring to get out of. But they were efficient. They set up the mystery so that we readers could see its broad outlines long before Kinsey did.
I’ll leave you with a question: why have these books not made it to the small screen? Are they not gloomy enough? Violent enough? Can’t we all think of some wonderful English actress who could put on an American accent and play Kinsey in a mini-series? How about Anna Maxwell Martin of The Bletchley Circle? Wouldn’t that be fun?