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a is for alibi

30 november 2011

Starting my current run of Sue Grafton mysteries with B is for Burglar was spoiling the symmetry of this website. In order to make all the title pages start with Kinsey Millhone, I had to go back and review A is for Alibi, which meant re-reading it, which was as good as reading it for the first time because I had very little memory of the plot. I remember it ending with Millhone killing someone who had double-crossed her. It still does.

Starting a mystery series with the letter A shows confidence in one's ability to create sustainable situations and casts of characters. Now that I've read through G I can see how carefully Grafton set up some of the continuing elements of her series in its first entry. Some seeds were planted early. Private eye Rob Dietz, who plays such a large part in G, makes a distant appearance as early as A (though I think both characters had forgotten about this by G). Other characters, like Millhone's neighbors Henry and Rosie, were fully-formed very early on. Con Dolan, the crusty Santa Teresa cop, is set up to play more of a role than he eventually would; I think that Grafton became wary of the tendency for a male cop to be around to rescue her female PI. Dolan doesn't rescue Millhone here, and she turns out not to need a great deal of rescuing as the series moves on.

There's even a half-hearted gesture at accounting for alibis in A is for Alibi, though they are years'-old alibis and they don't really affect the detection very much. So the pattern of tangential relationship of title to theme is established early on. So are Millhone's penchants for small apartments and small cars – though I believe her little black dress had to wait for B to make its debut.

Character and voice established Grafton's series. The plot of A is for Alibi would not particularly have brought readers back for more. It involves a gumshoe falling for the killer, a device at least as old as The Maltese Falcon and not made all that twisty by reversing the genders. Meanwhile, that killer is one of too many suspects with too many motives, the kind of concealment by sheer proliferation that is perfectly acceptable in crime fiction but rarely produces a really memorable novel. Though the very unmemorableness of A is for Alibi meant that I had a nice day renewing my acquaintance with it.

Grafton, Sue. A is for Alibi. 1982. New York: Bantam, 1994.