W is for Wasted, by Sue Grafton

In the 23rd Kinsey Millhone mystery by Sue Grafton, Kinsey’s elderly landlord Henry gets a cat named Ed. That is about the most interesting thing that happens in the book. Ed is one of the better characters.

W is for Wasted  is well-named, although Grafton is probably referring to the life of one of the murder victims. It is a disappointment.

The plot attempts to tie together two different murders, while expanding the story of Kinsey’s previously-unknown family. This results in a long choppy book, further fragmented by a choice to use shifting POV. Ultimately, the villain isn’t strong enough or evil enough to carry the weight of this story. The POV shifts mean that we the readers know who the murderer is before Kinsey does, which vitiates the suspense. This is a surprising choice for such an experienced mystery writer, and I don’t know exactly what Grafton thought she could gain from it. The second character’s viewpoint mean that the researcher and her cartoonist husband, who could have powered at least one half of the plot, were basically squandered here.

Part of my problem with the Millhone mysteries is that Grafton set them in the 1980s. The early books were set and written in the 80s, and these worked. Back then Kinsey was a model for feminism, a quirky character who provided a mechanism for social and political commentary. Now she seems quaint, and the tiny period details (headlines from People Magazine, hair styles, car styles) read as if they are gleaned from the internet.

I am not some clever, insightful reviewer having an epiphany. Grafton herself raised a concern about this very issue in an interview in the 1980s when she wondered what it would be like to write Kinsey in 25 years. Grafton is a gifted writer with an interesting life-view. As sad as this is to say, I will be happy when X, Y and Z roll around, and the Kinsey series ends. I’d be interested to see what Grafton does with a 21st century character, maybe a twenty-something, tech-savvy info-elite, who is mentored by her grandmother’s friend, the wise, experienced and comfortably retired Kinsey M.

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