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k is for killer

22 june 2012

After reading K is for Killer, I'm halfway through Sue Grafton's alphabet (which currently consists of 22 letters).

There is a Killer in K, and he's well-hidden; the book offers a nearly opaque mystery with hints of Chinatown (water at stake, lecherous old man) and Grafton's usual Santa Teresa ambiance. Despite Derek Strange's maxim that "private detectives only solved murders in movies and dime novels," Kinsey Millhone gets a murder case dropped in her lap at the start of K, by the mother of the victim. At least it might be a murder case. The corpse of a woman dead two weeks has been found in the remote shed that she called home. It's so badly decomposed that police aren't even sure of the cause of death. With no particular reason to suspect anyone, they've put the case on the back burner and turned it off. It's lukewarm at this point, if not altogether cold, and it's the kind of thing that private eyes in novels (at any rate) might reasonably be hired to look into.

The death of Lorna Kepler leads Kinsey Millhone into a web of porn, prostitution, high-stakes water-rights disputes, sleazy surveillance, and lethal electrical wiring. It's a taut mystery that rather quickly abandons its energies and evaporates in its last few pages.

There's the usual meticulous description. There's also a narrative tic that you just have to accept as part of the price of admission to a Sue Grafton novel: the fact that all the suspects and witnesses that Millhone interviews speak in complete sentences and offer fully-elaborated exposition worthy of, well, a novelist. Everybody's high-verbal and unfailingly polite (even when they're lying through their teeth). This is not the real world. But it's a world that Sue Grafton, and a lot of mystery fans, wish was real: a world where people finish their sentences, pay attention to their adjectives, and explain the functional logic of their actions in an optimistically positivist way.

The most interesting thing about the book is a couple of paragraphs about dog psychology. For once, Millhone meets a creature she really can't figure out, and who doesn't relate to her in blocks of well-crafted prose. One of Millhone's helpful contacts is a disk jockey who had befriended the murdered woman. The DJ, Hector Moreno, has a big dog called Beauty, who protects him from the world (the disabled Hector works the late shift in a dubious neighborhood). Beauty has "an air of nearly human intelligence" (33), and the "nearly" in that phrase is a qualifier of kind, not of degree. The big dog is an alien creature, smart in her own way, and inscrutable to Millhone (who can figure out nearly any human's motives and rationalizations). Beauty had approved of the dead Lorna, but is standoffish towards Millhone.

She hung her head, watching me with puzzlement, as if at any minute I might turn into the woman she was waiting for. (168)
Millone realizes that she can only approximate what Beauty is thinking. The puzzlement that she feels in the presence of animal intelligence reverberates respectfully through a book filled with much more transparent human manipulators.

Grafton, Sue. K is for Killer. New York: Holt, 1994.