Sue Grafton, author of the alphabetically themed mystery series starring the snappy female detective Kinsey Millhone and a town very much like 1980s Santa Barbara, has long been adamant that her books and her character would never make it to the Hollywood screen.
She even told her children that she would haunt them like a malevolent ghost if they were to sell the rights after her death.
It certainly hasn’t kept her heroine from the kind of fame that is usually only achieved by being the main character in a blockbuster film.
Any casual reader of mysteries, indeed, anyone who has ever rented a weekend cabin in the mountains, the desert or at the beach equipped with a bookcase of paperbacks is familiar with Grafton’s protagonist and her alphabetized series of madcap cases.
So you know that central to the books’ appeal is not the hoodlums and their crimes — which are often fueled by alcohol or stupidity rather than the epic, high-stakes evil driving other crime books — but rather Kinsey herself. She has reassuring habits. She runs three miles a day and grumbles about it. She likes to drink bad wine and hide from the world on her couch with a peanut butter and pickle sandwich. She doesn’t have much of a love life, but she does have a “Cheers"-like supporting cast, including her beloved 80-something landlord Henry Pitt.
Most of all, she is witty and weary and a lot of fun. When we first run into Kinsey in “V Is for Vengeance,” the 22nd book in the series, she has had her nose broken, on her birthday no less. This happened, she admits, because yet again she was “sticking said nose into someone else’s business.”
It goes without saying that someone soon winds up dead, and that Kinsey can’t let it go. She pulls at the pieces until she determines that her chance encounter with a lingerie shopper connects to murder, a nationwide shoplifting ring and, of course, a naughty cop and a thief with a heart of gold.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, something dedicated readers know that Grafton doesn’t do.
In her books, there is always time for one-liners and amusing descriptions and asides, which are half the fun.
Take the trip to the lingerie store that sets the story in motion: Grafton takes the time to describe the route Kinsey takes, her choice of parking spots and the fact that Kinsey usually prefers “the low-end chain stores, where aisles are jammed with racks of identical garments, suggesting cheap manufacture in a country unfettered by child labor laws.”
But on this day, Kinsey picks a Nordstrom, where, bored of “holding lacy scraps across my pelvis” she allows herself to be diverted by a woman stealing teddies and silk pajamas. Kinsey alerts store security, the woman is arrested and shortly thereafter turns up dead.
The initial verdict is suicide, but of course Kinsey is determined to learn more. Off she goes on her usual mix of madcap drives in her blue Mustang and stakeouts around Santa Teresa and surroundings, with her low-tech notecards, her witty repartee with any number of people and her disgusting meals at the local pub.
It’s not long before she’s threatened, and vows briefly to mind her own business, although this determination lasts less than a sentence before she is back for more.
As she did in 2009’s “U Is for Undertow” and other previous books, Kinsey shares the spotlight in “Vengeance” with a few other characters whose stories are at first unrelated and who get chapters devoted to their points of view.
This time, we get a manipulative but appealing trophy wife with a tragic past and a semi-decent gangster looking for love. These characters are less believable than Kinsey, as is their romance, although because they are drawn by Grafton they are still highly entertaining.
It will not lessen the suspense to reveal that these two eventually wind up intertwined in the same mystery as Kinsey. Or that Kinsey comes out, as always, bruised and battered but ready for a glass of Chardonnay and her next case.