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d is for deadbeat

4 may 2011

D is for Deadbeat is the best Kinsey Millhone novel I've read so far. Granted that I am still only four letters into the alphabet and 24 years behind the author, but I sense that by the fourth letter Sue Grafton was hitting her stride. A created Millhone as a fairly dark character; B took her in a lightly-boiled direction, C offered more exposition and subplot than story. But in D, we have a sordid, intriguing scenario, attention trained on a lean main plot, and some evil but irresistible energies.

The title character of the novel is John Daggett. He is in fact a deadbeat: he hires Millhone, and his $400 check promptly bounces. But he's so much more. He's an alcoholic, a bigamist, a con man . . . he could fill a whole alphabet just with his own character flaws. Early on in his novel, Daggett definitely becomes a Corpse as well as a Deadbeat. He Expires; he's Finished; he's a Goner. He's distinctly unmissed, except by a woman who has known him for all of 15 minutes: Kinsey Millhone.

When Daggett's death is ruled accidental, Millhone finds the loophole she needs to investigate the case privately. Murder it surely is, or else why would we be reading a mystery novel about it? And in a mystery novel, the murder of even a notorious waste of space will out. Private eyes operate by a code that values knowing the truth over all else. They speak for the dead and powerless.

So do cops, in Millhone's Santa Teresa. Millhone herself points out that cops don't have to care about victims; they just have to do their job. In many PI novels, they don't, or worse; but D for Deadbeat, at least, is not at all anti-cop. One of Grafton's more attractive characters is policeman Jonah Robb. Here, Millhone parlays her attraction to a sleazy suspect named Billy Polo into the beginnings of a dicey affair with the married Robb.

D for Deadbeat is stocked with tough bars, tough broads, and suburban veneers that cover excessive evil. There is little Rosie in the book and less Henry – not that I dislike Kinsey's culinary sidekicks, but they are not germane to the mix of murder, and they are well on the sidelines here. D is good, medium-boiled writing. E is in my queue.

Grafton, Sue. D is for Deadbeat. 1987. New York: Bantam, 1994.