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g is for gumshoe

21 november 2011

G is for Gumshoe crosses Sue Grafton's typical Lew Archer-style plot with a strain of From Russia with Love: implacable assassin stalks series hero, who keeps wandering into the assassin's path with a carelessness that verges on the suicidal.

Fortunately Kinsey Millhone has a bodyguard. Till letter G she hadn't needed one. She gets knocked around here as in every Alphabet novel, but the difference is that a low priced, high-skills hit-man is determined to toy with her before despatching her, allowing enough time for steely, love-starved PI Robert Dietz to enter her life in several ways. I guess Dietz is the gumshoe of the title. Neither he nor Millhone seem to wear gumshoes, and the word doesn't appear, to my recollection. But I guess it beats G is for a number of other possibilities.

The main plot, however, mixes missing persons with erased identities, in best Santa Teresa fashion. Millhone has a new client, concerned that her mother has gone missing from a trailer-park hell out in the Mojave Desert. Millhone (dodging the hit-man's bullets) finds the mother, but then the mother keeps disappearing again, and her very identity keeps going in and out of focus, as if the case were not about locating the mother but about discovering whose mother she really is.

The classic whodunit is about which guest at the Abbey truncated the Vicar's life; the hard-boiler tends to be about which wise guy bumped off Frankie the Snitch. Grafton's novels, at their best, like Macdonald's, are about "Are you my mother?" "What really happened back before the War?" "Who's buried underneath that construction site?" Strata of deception going back decades begin to implode as soon as our detective is called onto the case. She or he has issues of identity, a past to run from, a deep need to get to the end of a story too quickly.

Gumshoe is also about shedding skins. Millhone moves into a new apartment. (Her landlord Henry has replaced the one blown up, IIRC, back in E.) But she loses her elemental Volkswagen to the assassin's road rage. Fortunately she preserves her one little black dress, though it needs washing. Kinsey Millhone as snake, perhaps, ecdysiating every few letters of her life.

Grafton, Sue. G is for Gumshoe. New York: Holt, 1990.