January 31, 2006

BOOKS: S Is for Silence, Sue Grafton (2005)

19th in the alphabetically-titled Kinsey Millhone series.

The first volume in the series was published in 1982, and time moves more slowly in Grafton's fictional universe than in our own; this volume of the series is set in 1987. Grafton says she prefers to keep the books in a pre-fax, pre-cell phone, pre-Internet era.

But that doesn't mean that Grafton's out of touch with current trends. Digging up ancient cases is hot these days -- heck, it's even got its own TV show, Cold Case -- and in Silence, Kinsey is asked to investigate the case of a woman who disappeared in 1953.

In order to tell us what really happened 34 years ago, Grafton does something she hasn't done in any of the previous Millhone stories. We get flashbacks, chapters set in 1953 and told in points of view other than Kinsey's first-person narration. They make up about a third of the novel, and give us the views of five people who knew Violet Sullivan.

Violet was, in the lingo of her era, the town tramp. She was married, but not very happily, to an abusive drunk, and flirted with anyone who'd pay attention. So there were plenty of suspects when she disappeared on the Fourth of July weekend -- husband Foley, the men she'd slept with, the wives of those men -- but since Violet was never found, no one knew for sure whether she'd been killed or just left town. Violet's daughter Daisy was only seven at the time, and she's never gotten over her mother's vanishing; she approaches Kinsey through a mutual friend and asks her to investigate.

It's an interesting case, and Grafton does a fine job of making it plausible that Kinsey could learn as much as she does about a case so old. As always, she gives us a fine array of plausible suspects, and the men and women she interviews in 1987 are convincing as older versions of the characters we meet in the flashbacks to 1953. The last few pieces of the puzzle fall into place very quickly in the final pages, and the last chapter, which throws Kinsey and the villain into a dangerous showdown, is particularly abrupt.

But it's an entertaining book, and when you consider how stale some mystery series get after only three or four volumes, the fact that Grafton's still doing work this good in her nineteenth volume is an impressive accomplishment.

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