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Cannonball Read #28: U is for Undertow

02/28/2010

Sue Grafton is a prolific author, having written 21 books in her alphabet series. U is for Undertow is the latest. Set in the 80’s, these novels feature Kinsey Millhone, a no-nonsense private investigator. The book jacket calls Kinsey a “sharp-tongued, observant loner” and that description is dead on. Kinsey doesn’t hold any punches when it comes to giving her opinion, and she’s an excellent detective.

Living alone in a small apartment, Kinsey has a good friend as a landlord, and a few cops as friends, but she’s estranged from her family and keeps them at arms length. She’d been orphaned as a child and lived with her aunt, not knowing that there was an extended family reaching out to her. In U is for Undertow, the connection that had been established in recent novels is fleshed out as she finds that her grandmother had attempted to gain custody of her from her aunt, even going so far as to hire her own private investigator to dig up dirt on her aunt.

But that’s a side plot to the mystery of this novel. A young man approaches Kinsey and says that he has recently remembered some memories from his childhood in the sixties that may have some bearing on a child who had gone missing at that time. Grasping at the straws of his memory, Kinsey agrees to work for him for one day to see what she can dig up. And digging up clues is what Kinsey does best.

Pairing the chapters set in the 80’s with those set in the 60’s, Grafton fleshes out the storyline of the kidnapping with seemingly unrelated vignettes. Of course these characters are related to the plot, but it’s a testament to her writing that they seem wildly unrelated at the beginning.  The setting of the 80’s allows Grafton to have her protagonist do the real footwork of a detective without having to resort to cell phones or the internet. Missed connections, libraries (yay!), in-person interviews, and missing persons all factor into the story, and move the plot along at a nice pace.  The resolution of the plot, and the next step with Kinsey and her estranged family, come together well and combine to create a satisfying ending.

Grafton has four novels left to complete her alphabet series, W, X, Y and Z. I can’t wait to find out what happens next to Kinsey, but I’ll be sad to see her go. This tenacious detective is one of the great characters in mystery novels today.

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