I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get attached to this book. I’m not that big of a fan of the mystery genre; I can’t think of many detective or mystery stories I’ve liked, except for when I was a kid and loved Nancy Drew. Nancy Drew books were always a fun read, but they were formulaic and shallow, light entertainment with just enough suspense to keep the reader interested. That’s kind of the same feeling I had with this book, the first in Sue Grafton‘s Kinsey Millhone Alphabet mysteries. Each book corresponds with a letter of the alphabet. This one was first published in 1982, and after an amazon.com search I found that Grafton is now on ‘V,’ as her most recent in the series is titled ‘V is for Vengeance.’ While Grafton’s popularity as a mystery novelist is set, I’m pretty sure I won’t be reading all 26 of these guys once her collection’s complete.
Kinsey Millhone is a private investigator. She’s 32, living in a small studio in the fictional California central coast town of Santa Teresa (a thinly veiled pseudonym for Santa Barbara). She has a small office overlooking Santa Teresa’s main street (State Street, as it is called in both her novel and in reality) where she conducts her work. In this book, her case revolves around a new client, Nikki Fife, a young woman convicted of killing her husband, a prominent lawyer, eight years previously. Nikki has just been released from prison, and she approaches Kinsey to conduct an investigation to discover who really killed Laurence Fife in an effort to clear her name. Kinsey takes on the job, interviewing and meeting people from Fife’s past, including exes and past employees. Along the way, Kinsey enters into a romantic entanglement with Charlie Scorsoni, Fife’s former law partner. Through her interviews with people with connection to both Nikki and Laurence, Kinsey finds herself entrenched in a case involving murder, sex, lies, and hidden clues that have lain dormant for eight years. As she unearths them, she encounters her fair share of trouble, just as one might expect.
Grafton’s storytelling is not the gripping, page-turning action I think she wants to create. She tries to spin a tale of intrigue and mystery, but her characters fall flat and her story-telling lacks weight. Kinsey meets with too many persons-of-interest in this short novel to enjoy any character development; yes, as readers, we do learn about all the characters, but the information is delivered in such a straightforward and bland manner, analysis and reading for depth are difficult. Kinsey, too, although she is a first-person narrator, is not a fully fleshed-out character; I had a difficult time caring much about what happened to her one way or the other, or if she solved her case. Grafton’s prose is simple and banal most of the time; an example of it is at the end of the first chapter: “The whole trial had a sensational air. Nikki was young. She was pretty. She was born with money. The public was curious and the town was small. It was all too good to miss.” I’m sure this was meant to be a hook to inspire the reader to keep reading; I kept reading, but I did not feel compelled to as I have with really well-written books. Kinsey’s direct narration may be an attempt to characterize her as a private investigator with attention to detail, but the details she notices are surface-level with a narrative style to match.
I can see how the book would be entertaining. There are enough twists in the plot and enough sex and sabotage to keep the book moving, but the descriptions of people and the dialogue between Kinsey and her suspects were so conventional, I could not engage myself enough to enjoy it, even for a trivial and light read. It was fun to read about my town in the book and to recognize the fictitious names for actual locations in Santa Barbara: the wealthy neighborhood of Montebello is a cover for Montecito, while Horton Ravine fills in for Hope Ranch. The references weren’t enough to keep my interest, though, so in this case, the first letter is the last one for me.
My rating: It was OK (2 out of 5 stars)
Acknowledgments: I read the Bantam Books/Random House edition of ‘A’ is For Alibi by Sue Grafton, copyright 1982. ISBN 0-553-27991-2