If mystery fans were afraid Sue Grafton would run out of steam before she finished her alphabet series, her new novel, X, proves she still has many narrative routes to explore.
The spring of 1989 is something of a bust for Kinsey Millhone. Paid work is not exactly forthcoming. She finds herself accompanying her landlord as he looks for the source of their water leak in the middle of a horrible California drought. She’s annoyed by elderly neighbors who are constantly asking for help. And the widow of fellow private eye Pete Wolinsky is being hounded by the IRS and needs Kinsey to go through some old files. As a favor.
Finally, a paying job comes Kinsey’s way. Wealthy Hallie Bettancourt gave up her son for adoption and wants Kinsey to find him. He was recently released from prison, and Bettancourt wants to appease her guilt by trying to help him. It’s an easy-enough job for Kinsey, but soon after she sends the information to Bettancourt, she realizes that things are not what they seem: she’s been paid with cash—marked bills, as it turns out—and the gorgeous house where she met Bettancourt is now totally empty. Suddenly Kinsey has more than one case on her hands, and none of them is likely to yield a paycheck.
In many ways, this novel addresses the age-old conflict of appearance versus reality. What is going on with Hallie Bettancourt? If she’s not who she says she is, Kinsey may have put a young man in danger, and she needs to find out the truth. Meanwhile, in helping Pete’s widow she turns up a coded list in Pete’s papers. Kinsey has always doubted Pete’s integrity, but as she investigates this list, she has to re-evaluate her opinion of the man. Then there are the elderly neighbors: Kinsey feels guilty about her annoyance with them because she realizes everyone will be needy and annoying when they get old. But maybe these particular elders aren’t quite what they seem either. Throw in a serial killer, and Kinsey has both inner and outer demons to battle in this novel.
There are no major whodunits in X. The joy here is watching Kinsey find the culprits and restore order to the world, a task she has long assigned herself: “My quest for law and order began in the first grade when I ventured into the cloak room and surprised a classmate snitching a chocolate bar from my Howdy Doody lunch box,” Grafton writes. “The teacher appeared at that very moment and caught the child with my candy in hand. I anticipated due process, but the sniveling little shit burst into tears, claiming that I’d stolen it from her. She received no punishment at all while I was reprimanded for leaving my seat without raising my hand and asking to be excused. My teacher turned a deaf ear to my howls of protest. From that singular event, my notion of fair play was set, and, in sum, it is this: the righteous are struck down while the sticky-fingered escape. I’ve labored all my life to see that justice plays out the other way around.”
Kinsey’s descriptions of the life of the private investigator alone are worth the price of the book: “As I backed out of the drive, I glanced at the dashboard and realized I’d committed the two cardinal sins in the catechism of the private eye: 1. Never allow your car to get low on gas. I was looking at a third of a tank at best. Now I was in a hurry and had no time to top it off. 2. Never pass up a chance to pee.”
Even for the reader who may have dropped away at some point during Grafton’s alphabet series, it is a simple matter to fall back into an easy relationship with Kinsey Millhone. For those who have followed her all along the way, the end to this book is a tiny bit unsatisfying: it means there are only two more books left in the series.
Faye Jones, dean of learning resources at Nashville State Community College, writes the Jolly Librarian blog for the college’s Mayfield Library. She earned her doctorate in nineteenth-century literature at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.