Book Review: U is for Undertow by Sue Grafton

Grafton U is for Undertow by Sue Grafton
Pan Macmillan, 2010.

I very much enjoyed reading this classic crime novel. Although this is 21st in a series, anyone coming to it for the first time would enjoy this book, which is praise indeed, for the balance of satisfying regular readers while attracting new ones is a hard one to achieve.

Kinsey Milllhone, who lives in a place where time is slower than it is in reality, is now in 1988, living in Santa Teresa, California (a thinly disguised Santa Barbara). She is an independently minded PI, who makes a reasonable living providing evidence in cases such as divorce, corporate hiring, and the like. Occasionally, something comes her way that is slightly offbeat, and the baseline of her regular work allows her to spend time getting to the bottom of these unusual investigations.

Michael Stone is a somewhat inadequate, but nice, man who comes to see Kinsey because he has suddenly remembered an incident from his childhood. When he was six, he was playing in “the woods” and met two men burying something. When in his adult persona he encounters one of the men, he has a flashback and, putting two and two together, thinks that what he has remembered is a burial. At exactly that time in 1967, a four-year-old girl was kidnapped and, despite the desperate parents paying a ransom, she was never returned or found. Michael thinks that what he remembers is meeting two men who were burying the girl’s body.

After interrogating him, Kinsey agrees to spend a day (all that Michael can afford) investigating the 21-year-old case. She soon zeroes in on the location with Michael’s corroboration, and calls in the police. They investigate, but what they find is not the body of a girl. 

The rest of the book is a series of alternating chapters that are sometimes set in the mid-1960s, when the kidnap happened, and sometimes set in 1988, Kinsey’s present. I very much enjoyed the 1960s segments, particularly the chapters told from the point of view of Deborah Urunth, a conventional suburban US housewife who is subjected to the full force of the “summer of love” in both gently humorous and real-world senses. 

Kinsey gradually uncovers the events of the past, intrigued by Michael’s situation and half, but not entirely, convinced by those who tell her that he’s a time-waster and a fantasist who has irrevocably damaged his own family. At the same time, she receives some information about her own estranged relations, and cannot help experiencing parallels between her own case and that of Michael’s. Kinsey is an attractive, highly independent woman who likes being alone; she’s easy to identify with and I think one of the most enduringly reliable female protagonists in crime fiction.

Sue Grafton has written a very good crime novel with a solid plot and plenty of pace and observation. She really delivers, not taking the easy route of appealing to her audience who have read her previous 20 books (as I have), but rather adopting a fresh approach and creating a story of real human interest in addition to the satisfying detection plot. The ending is perhaps a little hasty with a question or two not properly resolved (quite glaringly in one case), but the juxtaposition of past memories and present characters, over the 20-year period that the novel covers, as well as Kinsey’s own continuing story, is very well done. I highly recommend this book, whether or not you have read any of the previous Kinsey Millhone novels.

 

Read other reviews of this book at Reactions to Reading (Bernadette), Reviewing the Evidence, and The Washington Post. (An Internet search will reveal plenty more.)

10 thoughts on “Book Review: U is for Undertow by Sue Grafton

  1. Maxine – Thanks much, as ever, for this thoughtful review. It is so nice, isn’t it, when an author of a long series is able to create engaging plots, fresh characters and so on, even in the 21st novel. That is quite an achievement, and I’ve very glad you enjoyed this one.

  2. Thanks, Margot. Like Michael Connelly, one feels that Sue Grafton, after all these novels and all her success (commercial and awards) is still interested in one thing – telling a good story!

  3. I am not sure I have read T yet, but I have certainly read and enjoyed all the others. Ever since one of Ole´s fellow students told me that Grafton began writing the series because she wanted to kill her ex-husband in effigy so to speak, Kinsey Millhone has been one of my favourite detectives. She is so nicely human, and I agree that the writer seems quite unspoilt by her fame.

  4. I enjoyed this book a lot, more than recent books in the series. It was truly unputdownable, just a good read from start to finish. I, too, liked the 1960s segments, could relate, was there, though not as extremely as the young characters. Also liked Deborah Urunth’s sections. It was a relaxing few “virtual vacation” days while reading this book.

  5. I thought U was one of the best in the series (and I have read ’em all). It kind of re-kindled my faith in human nature that she wasn’t just producing garbage knowing that people would buy whatever she writes unlike some of the other favourites I used to read (Cornwell for example). Reginald Hill is another author who I have been surprised by in terms of someone popular trying new things even now when he could publish a shopping list and it would be successful.

  6. Agreed, Bernadette and everyone. Personally I thought the Rebus series had begun to get somewhat tired, so I was pleased that Ian Rankin wrote The Complaints (drawing a veil over the previous book about the art fraud), and that it was so good. Again, he could sell a shopping list if he wanted to, so it is great that he has not gone the Patterson, Cornwell, Kellerman route (all good when they started out). Michael Connelly remains my type-example of a great author who continues to provide superb books, though, with nice little touches for regular readers but each novel a great treat in its own right.

  7. Yes! Connelly! I find that with Sarah Paretsky, too. And Stephen White’s latest, “The Last Lie,” is quite good.

  8. I’ve never read Grafton so I guess I’ll start here. Thanks Maxine. Great review since I am going straight to purchase.

  9. “The ending is perhaps a little hasty with a question or two not properly resolved (quite glaringly in one case)” Does this refer to the character of Michael Sutton’s (not Stone)estranged sister and brother bringing Kinsey proof he was out of town on his 6th birthday and couldn’t have seen the 2 men in the woods burying something? Because I can’t figure out why this wasn’t resolved when, in the end, Michael was right, he did see something at that time. Anyone have an explanation?

  10. That was one loose end, Ellen – I did not specify them in the review as I didn’t want to create spoilers. I have no answer for it, though, because the dates were so precise. Another loose end is the whole point of the vet’s practice and why what was taken from it was taken – seemed unnecessary to me, as well as complicating things.

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