Friday, December 25, 2009

Review: U is for Undertow by Sue Grafton


U is for Undertow is my second library e-book, and is the latest installment in a long-running series (beginning with 'Al is for Alibi' and proceeding through the alphabet). I started reading these books around the same time I started reading the adventures of Cornewell's Kay Scarpetta and Kellerman's Alex Delaware, and of the three I think Grafton is the only who has maintained my interest and whose books have not declined in quality. Cornwell tried to go 'literary' to somewhat disastrous results, and Delaware's protagonist became too middle-class and complacent.

Grafton, in contrast, chose to age her character slowly---Kinsey Millhone had steadily been adventuring through the late 1980's as the series has progressed. Part of the charm in these stories is watching Kinsey, from our technological age, do some good old-fashioned gumshoe-ing. I began another novel yesterday also involving a female PI, whose office consisted of a desk, with a computer, and several electronic database subscriptions. So watching Kinsey drive to the library and cross-reference a phone number through three different indexes bound by year in physical books was surprisingly refreshing. A subplot involving the glacial, but steady pace of Kinsey's relationship with her newly found relatives added further human interest to the story.

The plot involves a client who comes to her with a long-repressed memory of a time he witnessed two men digging a large hole in the woods, at around the time a young girl disappeared. As she plugs away at what clues his story offers her, she becomes enmeshed in the long-ago disappearance of the girl, and becomes involved in the stories of several others from that period.

Grafton uses the inter-woven stories of several characters to keep the suspense going. More than once, I raced through three or so chapters waiting to hear the rest of a yet-complete story I hoped we would come back to. The eventual fitting of everything together was neatly done, as from the perspective of decades later, one character would casually mention another and tie up a key loose end. Kellerman attempted a cold case in one of his previous books and never to make it work for me. Grafton handles this material with much, much greater finesse and skill.

My one complaint was the ending---sudden, not especially suspenseful or satisfying, and leaving one character's fate in the hands of their own monumental stupidity. And, I feel, as I did in my recent review of another book from a long-running by an author I generally enjoy, that the book could have been another hundred pages shorter and not suffered for it.

Overall though, high marks. Grafton changed the genre with 'A is for Alibi' and has kept up steam all the way to the near-end here. When she gets to Z, she'll leave us an excellent series to look back on.

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