A Grave Talent, Laurie R. King
This is the first in the series of Laurie King's Kate Martinelli novels. Unlike the Mary Russell books, they are set in the present day (well, the 1990s), in San Francisco, and they are police procedurals. When we meet Kate, she is a detective with the city police force, newly transferred from San Jose. It's been several years since I've re-read these, but recently a couple of things brought them to mind. The first was a discussion on a blog (I can't remember whose) about books set in San Francisco, and these are always the first that I recommend.
The second was re-reading King's Califia's Daughters. Much of the story in A Grave Talent takes place in a self-contained community, out of step with the world around it, which resembles the Valley of the other book. And Kate, like Dian, a figure of authority and protection, is set on a journey not just to solve a mystery or to rescue someone, though both of those things happen, but one that will also change her understanding of who she is and her place in the community. Her journey, though, unlike Dian's, will play out across several books.
A Grave Talent opens with the discovery of a child's body along Tyler's Road, where seventy people, adults and children, live in a community "part Amish, part Woodstock, part pioneer." Over the next few months, two more bodies appear, also young girls and like the first, not from the Road. The discovery of the third victim, the child of well-connected parents, suddenly focuses more attention on the case. Inspector Al Hawken and his new partner, Kate Martinelli, are sent to investigate. When they discover that one of the community's residents, Vaun Adams, was convicted at age 18 of the murder of a young girl she was baby-sitting, she becomes their prime suspect. They learn that Vaun Adams is also Eva Vaughn, an immensely talented artist whose work divides critics yet sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars. As Al and Kate work through the case, they come to suspect that the present murders are in fact connected to Vaun's past, to the first murder almost twenty years ago, and even to her paintings.
Kate and Al find that they work well together, and they start to build a friendship with their partnership. Kate is an intensely private person. Laurie King highlights that by keeping the reader in the dark about her personal life for the first half of the book. From the opening chapter we know that she lives with someone, Lee, with whom she shares a bed, and who makes good coffee - and that's about it. Perhaps we are meant to get to know Kate, and Lee, in the same way that Al Hawken does, over time. The gradual revelation of Kate's background and private life weaves through the case, as does an exploration of Vaun's development as a painter and the impact of her work on her life and those around her. Anyone interested solely in the solution to the crimes might find the meandering story frustrating, but I find King's characters and plots compelling, and I happily follow them through their convolutions.
The detectives succeed in solving this case, but the explosive ending brings tremendous changes to Kate and Lee's lives. As I came to end of the book, I realized that I wasn't ready to say good-bye to these characters, and I'm reading the next book in the series, To Play the Fool. I've twice heard Laurie King say, at book signings, that she doesn't find Kate a very interesting character - both times in answer to questions about whether there will be more Kate novels in the future. Clearly I'm not the only reader to enjoy Kate and Al and Lee, and these police procedurals, however different from Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes.