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Sue Grafton
V is for Vengeance

Marion G. Wood / G. P. Putnam's Sons / Penguin Putnam
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-399-15786-8
Publication Date: 11-14-2011
438 Pages; $27.95
Date Reviewed: 12-01-2011
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2011

Index:  Mystery  General Fiction

Serial mysteries present the author with serial problems. How can the writer preserve the traits that keep readers coming back without letting them grow stale? How can one change the way one writes a series without alienating readers who like things just the way they are? How much do you move a character through time? Put more simply, how do you keep writing good books year after year?

Obviously, there is no single right answer, but there are plenty of writers who solve the problems. Sue Grafton, famously twenty-two books into her "Alphabet series" featuring private investigator Kinsey Millhone, demonstrates that change is both necessary and to be avoided in 'V is for Vengeance.'

On one hand, Grafton has mixed up the writerly aspects of her series with great success; on the other, she's kept her character preserved in 1980's amber with equal success. She's fixed what wasn't broken and made it better. Her latest novel offers a great combination of the familiar and the new. It's a delight to once again wind back the clock and stroll down the streets of Santa Teresa for a main course of murder and a side order of shoplifting.

Grafton fires off the novel with a flashback sans-Kinsey, where we see bad things happen to a flawed young man. The next thing we know, Kinsey is turning thirty-eight and she's got a busted nose and two black eyes. The novel takes us from the first story to the second, It's a twisty, complicated machine that sidesteps all the usual tropes of the mystery genre while it simultaneously provides all the rewards.

At the core, Kinsey is hired to run a background check on a prospective fiancÉ by a worried elderly groom. He's sort of lost his grounding, rushed into a new marriage after his wife has died, with a woman he clearly does not know as well as he should. Kinsey sees crime, he sees hardship. Her investigations lead her to a shoplifting ring, an unhappy socialite wife, and eventually, a fist in the face. It's a intricate, thoroughly engrossing and enjoyable journey.

The plot unfolds in layers and revelations, as we meet new characters and Grafton counterpoints third-person narration with Kinsey's first-person narrative. This is a tough act to pull off, but in Grafton's skilled hands, it's a true pleasure to read. 'V is for Vengeance' lives up to the title with multiple character arcs meeting the implied promise, which is not so easy to deliver. It's not a who-done-it style mystery by any means. We know who the bad actors are, and we know what they did. The plot tension is provided by the Grafton's complicated vision of how lives become entangled, and what happens when the ties begin to bind. Some will hang, and some will slip free, all to the readers' great satisfaction.

Grafton's characters are always fun, and 'V is for Vengeance' is a showcase for those we know and those specific to this novel. Her client is a great example. He's an infatuated retiree who is too reluctant to stop believing in his girl. This may make him an honorable man, but it also makes him a stubborn mule and a problematic, antagonistic client for Kinsey. There are some deadly but very engaging criminals about, countered by cops who are deadly but not so engaging. Grafton knows how to put us fully in these lives without an overabundance of details.

The prose is smart and utterly transparent. After the fact, you'll realize that you read an undue number of great sentences that only rarely pointed out the fact that they were in fact great. The architecture of the novel is finely wrought. It's twisty but never feels convoluted. Grafton has a very low-key, down-to-earth suburban approach in her novels. They're not exactly gritty, but only because in Santa Teresa, the sidewalks are generally swept clean.

'V is for Vengeance' surely benefits from the 21 letters that have preceded it. When she started, Grafton was writing contemporary fiction; now she's writing historical mysteries, reverse science fiction. You could start with this one, but why? Don't do that. If you've not read the rest, Sue Grafton's novels will give you the unique experience of looking forward to looking backward. Gripping, intelligent, and fun, 'V is for Vengeance' has it all. It's best served hot off the press, with an easy chair and glass of bad wine.

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