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f is for fugitive

2 august 2011

There is a fugitive in F is for Fugitive – I am always happy to relate when one of Sue Grafton's novels bears even a distant relationship to its title. The fugitive has been apprehended – he's escaped from his prison term for a long-ago murder he now claims he didn't commit – and Kinsey Millhone is employed to clear his name, if possible. She's making some progress till the fugitive's accomplice bursts into his arraignment waving a shotgun, busting the fugitive loose again in the process of getting himself gunned down.

F is for Fugitive is set up the coast from Millhone's native Santa Teresa, in a claustrophobic small town called Floral Beach. The murder in question took place 17 years ago, when the victim was in high school. Everyone in Floral Beach seems to have attended that high school at the same time, and to have embarrassing secrets connected to the victim, one of the less chaste high-schoolers in West Coast history. F is for Fugitive is an exercise in setting and character, bringing a protagonist we know well into new surroundings, having her meet new eccentrics.

The novel is stronger on ambiance and character than on plot. Oh, it's a whodunit for sure, and has a cast of suspects that would make Agatha Christie happy, but there are so many of them, and Millhone gets involved in their intimate lives so quickly, that even a veteran Krimi reader's head starts spinning. But they are colorful characters: the ravaged father, the diabetic mother, the horny preacher, the harried attorney, the traumatized pharmacist, the roundheel barfly, the potbellied barowner, the repressed dentist, the shamefaced school principal, the maniac tennis-racket-wielding chiropractor's wife. Some, as you'll notice, are stock characters, and some are truly not. Bringing them to life in a few paragraphs each over the course of 300 pages is not an easy task, but Grafton is endlessly inventive.

F is for Fugitive is bracketed by Millhone's feelings for Henry, her old-enough-to-be-a-father landlord and best friend. Henry barely appears in the book; Millhone's apartment had been smithereened in E is for Evidence and she takes the case in Floral Beach while waiting for Henry to rebuild it. But he's there implicitly as she deals with the tragedy of her employer father and his vanishing children. Overpopulated whodunits can work when they deliver emotionally convincing relationships, and this one does.

Grafton, Sue. F is for Fugitive. 1989. New York: Bantam, 1990.