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l is for lawless

29 july 2012

L is for Lawless is an atypical Kinsey Millhone novel. Millhone isn't technically hired to investigate; she just goes through the garage apartment of a deceased Second World War veteran to see if there's anything of interest to his heirs, and there isn't. Well, there's an old key marked "Lawless," but that's of only slightly more interest than nothing, at least until people start getting beaten up and killed over it.

The ensuing shenanigans take Millhone on a picaresque journey from Santa Teresa to Dallas to Louisville. Sue Grafton somehow pictures Dallas as being in the desert (I suppose there's no conquering this preconception except by bringing people to Dallas one by one and refuting it visually). She even has Millhone and some absconding fugitives take refuge in a hotel called the Desert Castle: seriously, there are no establishments in Dallas called "Desert" anything, because you'd instinctively stay away from them; names like that are reserved for cities actually in deserts, like Las Vegas, or ironically for Southwestern restaurants in places like Duluth.

But I digress. Though L was published in 1995, it's still the 1980s in Grafton's curiously impeded timeline. The secrets behind everyone's weird behavior have to do with a noir story that's been preserved on ice since the 1940s. The backstory involves a bank job, hard labor in prison, a buried stash of loot, and some guys who walked straight off the set of a chain-gang movie into 1980s Southern California.

The things that annoy me about Grafton's novels are much in evidence here. The uninteresting stuff about Millhone's family, the only barely more interesting stuff about her landlord Henry's family, the tendency for all of her characters to talk like expository guides to one thing or another (locksmithing, hotel procedures, their life story). But Millhone remains a likably exasperated character, and her retro villains are agreeably hard-boiled. On to M!

Grafton, Sue. L is for Lawless. New York: Holt, 1995.