“A” Is for Alibi by Sue Grafton is the 1st book in her highly acclaimed Kinsey Millhone Alphabet Mysteries series. Go all the way back to the beginning with David Cranmer's review!
Would you indulge me in some California dreaming? Thanks.
So, “A” Is for Alibi, featuring Sue Grafton's private investigator Kinsey Millhone, debuted in 1982—a year before author Ross Macdonald died. Macdonald had created the fictional town of Santa Teresa where his own PI, Lew Archer, routinely patrolled throughout an eighteen book series. The wealthy area (described by Grafton as “a haven for the abject rich”), which—more than a little—resembles the real Santa Barbara, is where a good chunk of the setting of Alibi takes place. I can picture both detectives sitting down at Rosie’s Tavern, Archer laying his fedora on the table, thoroughly entranced by thirty-two-year-old Kinsey Millhone—she a reflection of his younger self—in a symbolic passing of the torch. Nice to envision, right?
Archer’s influence is certainly in Kinsey’s voice as she describes her latest client Nikki Fife, who served time for murder:
I had thought her eyes were dark but I could see now that they were a metallic gray. Her look was level, flattened-out, as though some interior light were growing dim. She seemed to be a lady without much hope. I had never believed she was guilty myself but I couldn't remember what had made me so sure. She seemed passionless and I couldn’t imagine her caring enough about anything to kill.
Do you hear it? That distinct cadence in the phrasing, an homage to Ross Macdonald without being a rip, building on the work that he molded from Raymond Chandler’s foundation. Kinsey arrived on the scene six years after the last Archer book, The Blue Hammer (1976). And now, twenty-four books later (X was released in 2015), she is the old pro on the scene—and the Alphabet Mysteries is undoubtedly even more popular than Ms. Grafton’s original inspiration.
In this first case that we are privy to (she’d been working as a private gumshoe before Alibi), we are allowed to eavesdrop in on Kinsey as she narrates first person (how else, right?) that Nikki had served her time for murdering her wealthy husband Laurence, a successful divorce lawyer that Kinsey had worked with periodically. Official cause of his death: he had ingested oleander that he had thought was his medicine. She now comes to Kinsey to find the real killer.
Kinsey starts by contacting Lieutenant Con Dolan, who is described as looking “like he would smell of Thunderbird and hang out under bridges throwing up on his own shoes.” He reminds me a bit of Robert B. Parker's Martin Quirk in terms of behavior. He has respect for Kinsey (like Quirk does for Spenser), but is still going to make her earn every inch of his veneration.
A big clue in the old files is that an accountant named Libby Glass had died ingesting ground oleander four days after Laurence shuffled off the mortal coil. She had worked for a business-management firm representing the interests of Laurence's law firm. So, Kinsey begins pulling the thread, and, in the process, we learn more about her. A lot more.
Reading Macdonald, I never felt close to Archer. Respected him, yes; his points of view—certainly. But, he was more of a mentor than a friend. Kinsey, if not an improvement on the old guard, is a rewarding detour from the archaic tight-lipped detective. When Laurence's former law partner, Charlie Scorsoni, stops by to chat her up, she feels the pull of mutual attraction.
We shook hands as he left. I didn’t know why—maybe just an excuse to touch. Even a contact that casual made the hairs stand up along my arm. My early-warning system was clanging away like crazy and I wasn't sure how to interpret it. It's the same sensation I have sometimes on the twenty-first floor when I open a window—a terrible attraction to the notion of tumbling out. I go a long time between men and maybe it was time again. Not good, I thought, not good.
Newsweek has said, “Grafton has created a woman we feel we know…” True enough. She’s someone you would want to friend on Facebook or share vacation pics with on Instagram. Or, better yet, have her over for tea because that’s where you may learn more about the car accident when she was five-years-old that claimed the lives of her parents and is the continuing pain that’s still lodged deep down. She’d probably tell you how the rebellious streak through school built an autonomy within that has served her well, especially when she became a police officer for the Santa Teresa Police Department, but not kowtowing to authority or management’s treatment of women, prompting her to quit. And, maybe if she really likes you, perhaps you will learn more about those two marriages under her belt.
Still, you may have a problem getting close to Kinsey because outside of Rosie, who runs her favorite local bar, and Henry, her landlord, she pretty much sticks to herself—not counting a few relationships sprinkled throughout the series. She did, though, reconnect to family members not long ago. Weird that I’m talking about Kinsey like she’s real? Well, she has that effect on us fans.
All the ingredients for the enormously successful alphabet soup are right there in “A” Is for Alibi, with Ms. Grafton stirring it to perfection. We talk a lot about red herrings in mysteries—those pesky little traps that authors set to steer us away from the actual culprits. Sometimes, they are dropped so erratically that it’s effortless to guess what the author is up to or they come in such a rat-a-tat fashion that one loses interest in even trying to guess. In “A”, Ms. Grafton drops them with the organic precision of a Bouguereau stroke. Kinsey is drawn to or away from suspects and we go right along with her right up to the plot twist that gobsmacks her as well as us and has her fighting for her life.
“A” Is for Alibi gets an A+ for continuing perfection three decades later. I’m certain Lew Archer is resting easy knowing Santa Teresa remains in good hands.
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David Cranmer aka Edward A. Grainger is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP books and author of The Drifter Detective #7: Torn and Frayed. He lives in New York with his wife and daughter.