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b is for burglar

22 december 2010

I read Sue Grafton's A Is for Alibi about 12 years ago, somewhat more than 12 years after it came out. I just read B Is for Burglar. At this rate, given that Grafton is now writing V Is for V     ?, I should finish the series about the year 2170 or so.

When a mystery series goes beyond its twentieth title, readers naturally wonder: is any specific entry in the series of any individual interest, or is the whole saga just an accumulated reinforcement of our impressions of its hero, setting, and criminal MO? I think in writing about a single title one has to take it seriously for itself. So, is B Is for Burglar, independent of its surroundings, a good crime novel?

I am a good test subject for this question, because I have only a vague recollection of A, and I haven't yet opened C through U. I'm fairly innocent of Kinsey Millhone, Grafton's famous private eye. I remember her from Alibi as a tough character who spars with cops and isn't afraid to initiate mayhem when necessary. (In this, she recalls many an American shamus, but particularly Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer, in whose fictional Santa Teresa CA Millhone lives and works.)

In B Is for Burglar Millhone gets an assignment that would be typical for Archer. Find a woman's sister. The sister has disappeared, which is distinctly unlike her. She may be in Santa Teresa. She may be in Boca Raton. The police could help, but the unmissing sister vetoes that suggestion. Millhone is on her own, and after a certain point she's only technically employed anymore (by an elderly neighbor of the missing woman, who decides that sleuthing would be a good use of her retirement savings).

But like any good fictional private eye, Millhone has a need to know. That need trumps common sense and professional protocol. As so often happens in Ross Macdonald, Millhone finds herself tracking a woman whose very being has vanished, to be replaced by another's. All crimes in this world are ultimately identity thefts. The self is intolerable: it must be replaced by an alternative self, even if that second self isn't so different from the first. And even if people are destroyed in the process.

Skillful? Yes. Derivative? Yes, but crime fiction is a derivative genre; unlike SF or avant-garde fiction, you get no particular points for doing something unprecedented in a detective novel. Worth reading on? You bet, though it may be another twelve years before I post the letter C.

Finally, what about that burglar? One of the things that makes some series novels interchangeable is the arbitrariness of their titles. Grafton's numbers have a slight advantage over Janet Evanovich's numbers, in that they at least feature a sinister keyword. But only a slight advantage: Grafton's titles are in effect a single word, one motivated only by abecedarian principles.

Just as I can't remember any Alibi in A, I have to report that there isn't a Burglar in B. There's a half-hearted attempt to make us believe there may have been a burglar, but it's a burglar who immediately escalates their conduct to bludgeoning people to death and torching their homes. I reckon that B Is for Bludgeon, though, would have been just arcane enough to kill off the series after its second entry.

Grafton, Sue. B Is for Burglar. 1985. New York: St. Martin's, 2005.