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c is for corpse

12 april 2011

My pace through Sue Grafton's Alphabet series is now blistering; I've read two of them in the last four months. My distant memory of A is for Alibi is that it was a nine-minute-egg of a hard-boiled book; B is for Burglar is slightly softer at the core; and C is for Corpse, while not exactly runny, doesn't put Kinsey Millhone through nearly as much simmering as the previous two books did.

This may be a feature of series that take on long-running ambitions. You can't maintain the stress level without running your protagonist unreasonably ragged. Recognize, of course, that I'm still 25 years behind the author, and things could have taken several turns for the harder-boiled and back again in the course of that quarter-century.

Such a calming-down happened in Andrea Camilleri's Montalbano series after the frenetic first two entries, and it seems to have happened in the case of Sue Grafton. C is for Corpse features the title item – in fact, as you'd expect, several of them – but I get no sense that Millhone is in much danger during the novel. (At least till the end, when a mad doctor borrowed from Raymond Chandler's toolkit shoots her full of hop.)

Linked to its general relaxation is the curious deferral of tension in C is for Corpse. The paperback runs 305 pages, and the first 180 don't really advance a plot at all. It's not that they're entirely expository: people interact, and Millhone starts investigating a possible attempted murder that then turns into a no-doubt, successful one. But till three-fifths of the way through the novel, there's no sense of a range of suspects or a dynamic that may reveal the motives for murder. Millhone not only doesn't get anywhere, she's not even sure that there's somewhere to get.

A subplot, more interesting than the main, concerns Millhone's landlord Henry. Henry is about to fall into the clutches of a golddigger. Millhone prevents this by snooping around.

She's good at snooping. At times while reading C is for Corpse I became impatient with Grafton's detailed descriptions of every room that Kinsey Millhone walks into. They seemed like by-the-numbers exercises from creative-writing handbooks: "make the scene come alive for your reader!" But late in the novel the observational tic became a thematic principle.

I'm an incurable snoop and I search automatically. Having been raised from the age of five by an unmarried aunt, I spent a lot of time as a child in the homes of her friends, most of whom had no children of their own. I was told to keep quiet and amuse myself, which I managed in the first five minutes with the latest in an endless series of coloring books we brought with us when visiting. The problem was that I was terrible at keeping in the lines . . . so I learned to search. In this manner, I discovered people's hidden lives. (237-38)
What had seemed a rote adherence to a compositional imperative suddenly was deepened into a transgressive drive. Far from a "by the numbers" project, Millhone's snooping becomes, with this paragraph, an exercise in coloring outside the lines. Not only is her snooping good for her line of work and the plots of her stories, but it becomes a profound character note. This could get interesting. Well, for most readers it got interesting 25 years ago, but a joy of reading is that you really never will catch up.

Grafton, Sue. C is for Corpse. 1986. New York: St. Martin's, 2005.