Fresh Meat: X by Sue Grafton

X by Sue Grafton is the 24th mystery in the Kinsey Millhone series about the California-based private eye (available August 25, 2015).

An apt subtitle for Sue Grafton’s latest book X is the oft-repeated quote that “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” In the 24th in her series of alphabet mysteries, private eye Kinsey Millhone, based In Santa Teresa, California, is pursuing a con artist, a sociopathic serial killer, and a couple of small time crooks, all of whom repeat the past with varying consequences.

In Grafton’s version of a time machine, Kinsey is forever stuck in the 80s. A is for Alibi was published and set in 1982, and 33 years later, X is set in 1989. Technology has improved at lighting speed in the decades since 1982, making it tough for crime writers everywhere. Cell phones are ubiquitous, cars come with emergency releases inside the trunks to put a crimp in a kidnapping plot; the days of hotwiring cars is long gone, and CSI has taken some of the fun out of the detective game. But Kinsey Millhone, with no high-tech devices to aid her, still gets a kick out of being a private eye. And readers who tag along will enjoy the ride.

Kinsey’s code as a detective is simple and inviolate:

My prime talent is snooping, which sometimes includes a touch of breaking and entering. This is entirely naughty of me and I’m ashamed to confide how fun it can be, but only if I don’t get caught.

This is the truth about me and you might as well know it now. I’m passionate about all manner of criminals: killers, thieves, and mountebanks, the pursuit of whom I find both engaging and entertaining. Life’s cheaters are everywhere and my mission is to eradicate the lot of them.

What she lacks in technology, Kinsey more than makes up for in moxie, which she puts to good use with the murder, mayhem, and ghastly neighbors she contends with in X. Kinsey is after three of life’s cheaters. The first wants to steal a painting. The second wants to cheat Kinsey’s landlord, Henry Pitt. The third hopes to cheat justice.

Teddy Xanakis would have to steal the painting. What other choice did she have? She believed it was a Turner—a possibility she couldn’t confirm unless she shipped it to the Tate in London, where the Turner scholars, Evelyn Joll and Martin Butlin in particular, could make a judgment about its authenticity.

The Xanakis narrative is mystifyingly dropped until much later in the novel, by which time more serious crimes have come to light. I think it could have been 86ed, for it adds little to what is already an overlong novel at 400-plus pages

Wealthy Hallie Bettancourt hires Kinsey to find Christian Satterfield, a felon recently released from prison, who was the baby 15-year-old Hallie reluctantly gave up for adoption years earlier. She has invited Kinsey to her mansion on the hill and offers her some expensive chardonnay to go along with the stunning view. Bettancout explains the situation to Kinsey.  

I became pregnant and bore a child when I was fifteen years old. If the choice had been mine, I’d have kept the baby and raised him myself, but my parents were adamant. They felt I was too young and too immature to take on such a burden; a point I could hardly refute.

Kinsey is blinded by the mansion, the wine, or maybe the sob story, for this turns out to be a convoluted con.

Meanwhile, Kinsey has become friendly with Ruth, the widow of Pete Wolinsky, a dodgy P.I. from Kinsey’s past, who was murdered in W is for Wasted. Ruth is left with a mountain of documents Pete has tucked away in his garage, and Kinsey offers to help with the sorting.

Pete’s papers, though, hold more secrets than a psychiatrist’s case files. And someone wants to make sure those secrets remain undisclosed. Ruth’s house is broken into; phone messages are erased, and an IRS man arrives on her doorstep. This is all too much coincidence for Kinsey, and despite Ruth’s protests, Kinsey searches Pete’s papers, and thinks the mysterious happenings are related to an undelivered envelope found in Pete’s stash, from a long dead mother to her now adult daughter. Even though I am still not entirely certain how the envelope leads Kinsey to suss out a murderer, it certainly does spur her into action.

Closer to home, Kinsey finds herself in hot water:

Santa Teresa, California, Monday, March 6, 1989. The state at large and the town of Santa Teresa in particular were nearing the midpoint of a drought that had slithered into view in 1987 and wouldn’t slither off again until March of 1991, when the ‘miracle rains’ arrived.

In 1989, Los Angeles was struggling through its seventh drought since 1917. Pick a decade out of a hat, and Los Angeles probably had a drought issue, but I like to think that Grafton is here tipping her fedora to Chinatown, one of the best detective movies of all time. In addition to the drought, X, like Chinatown, has a mother-daughter plotline replete with creepy father.

The water shortage is being taken seriously by Kinsey’s landlord, Henry Pitt. He is assiduously looking for ways to save or reuse water. He shows Kinsey some of his ideas.

He lets a sink fully of soapy water drop into a bucket. ‘”What you’re looking at is Step One in my new water conservation system. I can dump this bucket full of gray water in the toilet to make it flush. I can also use waste water to irrigate my lawn.”

Despite Henry’s water saving efforts, his bill keeps rising. He suspects Kinsey of being a wanton water glutton. She, in turn, has misgivings about Henry’s new neighbors. She discovers them leaving their trash in other people’s cans and wonders what other cheats they might be engaged in. Kinsey believes digging into their pasts will shine a light on their present shenanigans. When Henry steps up his conservation project to the point of tearing out his entire yard, Kinsey is horrified.

“How can you bear it? You’ve always loved your garden.”

“I’ll have one again. For the time being, there are higher principles at work.

His tone was a teeny tiny bit self-congratulatory and I felt a whisper of irritation.

“How come nobody else is doing this?” I asked.

“Excellent question and one I’ve asked myself. I’m hoping that others will follow suit.”

Good luck with that.

Even great detectives in long-running series may run out of steam, but as far as I’m concerned, Kinsey Millhone is a gumshoe for the ages.

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Susan Amper, author of How to Write About Edgar Allan Poe, still mourns the loss of her Nancy Drew collection.

Read all posts by Susan Amper on Criminal Element.


  1. debmo

    Nice to see that Grafton is able to consisently keep Kinsey Millhone interesting. She’s always been a treat to read.

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