R is for Ricochet, Sue Grafton
I've been culling quite a few books from my overflowing shelves lately. I seem to be clearer about which ones I'm never going to read again (or in some cases for the first time). I've been pleasantly surprised at how easy it is let these books go, and how good it feels to clear them out. There are some, though, that I have waffled over. I just can't decide about Martha Grimes; I'll probably have to re-read one of them before I can make up my mind. I felt the same way about Sue Grafton. I've been reading her series featuring Kinsey Millhone, a PI in Santa Teresa, California, for many years, but somehow I got stuck at this book, her 18th. I bought it back when it was published in 2004 but never got around to reading it, nor any of the books that follow (the series is now up to V for Vengeance).
The first book, A is for Alibi, was published in 1982. Grafton has chosen to keep the books' internal timeline consistent, so while 30 years have passed in the real world, only five have in Kinsey's world. Grafton doesn't overwhelm her stories with what's now period detail, but you can catch something of the timing in passing, when Kinsey uses a pay phone instead of a cell phone, or when she mentions graduating from high school in 1966 - or when she enters a bar where "Eighty-seven per cent of those present were smoking, the air as gray as morning fog."
When this book opens, Kinsey is on her way to meet a new client, Nord Lafferty, wealthy and socially prominent. To her surprise, the job he offers involves his daughter Reba, who is being released on parole after serving twenty-two months in prison for embezzlement. She pleaded guilty to stealing $350,000 from her employer Alan Beckwith, a local real estate developer. The only child of an elderly father and an absent mother, Reba has been in trouble for much of her life, addicted to both drugs and gambling. Mr. Lafferty wants Kinsey to keep an eye on her for the first few days following her release, as she makes the transition to freedom again, and Kinsey agrees.
Spending time with Reba, Kinsey soon realizes that she and the married Beckwith were having an affair before she went to prison, which they are quick to resume. Then Kinsey is approached by a local police officer, Cheney Phillips, who tells her that the FBI and IRS are interested in Reba, because Beckwith's real estate business is just a front for some serious criminal activity. They are hoping to turn Reba, and they want Kinsey's help. Cheney is also interested in Kinsey, in a completely different way of course, and the two begin seeing each other. Reba, who has her own plans, manages to drag Kinsey along and into trouble with both the cops and the bad guys. For much of the book Kinsey plays an atypically passive role, following Cheney and Reba's leads. She acknowledges this in the last line of the book: "So here's what I've learned. In the passing drama of life, I'm usually the heroine, but occasionally I'm simply a minor character in someone else's play."
I did enjoy this book. It was interesting returning to this series after so many years. Much of it felt familiar: Kinsey's essentially solitary life, the dull routine of much of her work, her passion for junk food (she regularly eats two Quarter Pounders with Cheese at a time), and her Paul Newman-esque landlord, the sexy 87-year-old Henry. Other things I'd forgotten, like Kinsey's history with Cheney, but Grafton is good at dropping clues and details to fill in what's now a complicated backstory. Her story here is complex and twisty, with scams, betrayals and counter-plots. Beckwith's criminal activities include money laundering, which means Kinsey (and the reader) get lectures from the cops and the FBI not just about how the laundering is done but also about the laws meant to prevent it, and that did slow the story down in places. There is also a subplot involving Henry, his slightly annoying brothers and a woman he is interested in, which balances the Kinsey-Cheney pairing and the Reba-Beckwith. As Kinsey announces on the first page, "This is a story about romance - love gone right, love gone wrong, and matters somewhere in between."
So Sue Grafton is staying on the shelves (she'll be relieved, I'm sure), and I'll probably be looking to catch up on the books I've missed as well.