U is for Undertow
Author: Sue Grafton
Readable Pages: All of them
Sample line: “How could I have known then that within days, he’d be laid out on a coroner’s slab with a bullet hole between the eyes?”
This isn’t your typical book-review column. I’m reading the bestsellers: the Grishams, the Cornwells, the Higgins Clarks. Moreover, I’ll render the kind of blunt verdict you get when reading about toasters in Consumer Reports. I’ll tell you which of the bestsellers, if any, are readable. If they’re semi-readable, I’ll tell you which pages to skip. With any luck, you’ll know which one to pack for the flight to Jakarta. If you want a different approach, try The New York Review of Books.
Our first book is Sue Grafton’s U is for Undertow, a fat, royal blue book that sits at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. The year is 1988. The hero is one Kinsey Millhone, who sounds less like a private eye than a natural-gas concern. The flap jacket says this is Grafton’s 21st alphabetically enhanced mystery ( A is for Alibi, etc.), and Kinsey feels like she’s been around the block. She’s 37 and twice-divorced; she’s incapable of using an eyebrow pencil without giving herself “the fierce demeanor of a Kabuki.” Kinsey’s got some long-festering family drama, and if you want to cut straight to the whodunnit you should skip over pages 25-26, 226-233, and 253-260.
But that’s not recommended, because U is for Undertow isn’t much of a mystery. Sure, there’s a baby who was kidnapped and murdered 20 years ago, and a 6-year-old boy, now grown, who may or may not have seen its burial. But what’s wonderful about the book is the sharp-eyed details Grafton packs into its frame. For example, watch Kinsey arrive at a cat hospital, where she’s gone to chase down a clue, and size up the receptionist: “Her salt-and-pepper hair was heavy on the salt, shoulder length, and blunt cut. Her bifocals had beveled edges, with thin wire stems. The tops of the lenses were tinted blue and the bottoms tinted pink. … She looked like someone who’d carry a cat around while the office was closed for the lunch.”
Meow. And Grafton not only gives us Kinsey and her world-weariness—she always has a quip about what other women are wearing—but drops into the minds of the murder suspects, too, allowing them dozens of pages to establish their own humanity. There is Walker McNally, a sodden drunk for whom the pouring and stirring of a drink becomes a kind of sexual foreplay. There’s Jon Corso, a restless kid caught in the crossfire of a weenie professor father and a domineering mother-in-law. (“There was no court of appeals,” he laments.) And Shelly, a refugee of the '60s who doesn’t care for shaving and is fiercely vegetarian. Oh, and lately she’d rather you call her “Destiny.”
Warning: There is talk of social class here. Kinsey has a chip on her shoulder about the well-to-do folks in her California town, so read the book discreetly if flying first class. Grafton’s interest is in such friction, however—she gets turned on when sad, oafish yuppies are bold enough to commit a crime but not brave enough to see through its consequences. “It’s only in the movies the bad guys keep firing,” Kinsey tells us after discharging her Heckler & Koch pistol. “In real life, they sit down and behave.”
Read it? Absolutely.
William Boot covered the war in Ishmaelia and wrote the Lush Places column for The Daily Beast. He now reviews commercial fiction.