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h is for homicide

17 february 2012

H is for Homicide is a lively, action-driven thriller that nevertheless is a weaker novel than its seven predecessors in Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone series. This is a shame, because G was one of the best, and also because I've now got I through V waiting on my shelf still to be read. Friends have warned me that Kinsey Millhone jumps the shark at some point, but I've enjoyed her early adventures enough to score all the rest of the titles at thrift stores and paperback exchanges across Texas. This is going to be one long alphabet if it's all downhill after the letter H.

Title watch: there is a homicide immediately in H is for Homicide. But the rest of the novel is not devoted to solving it. In fact, the identity of the killer is revealed as an afterthought, long after the novel has followed an extended tangent. In fact, it's not that hard to guess pretty early on.

Homicide is not the main crime in H. It's insurance fraud. Kinsey Millhone goes undercover and joins a ring of violent characters who smash up innocent motorists, shake down their insurers, and filter enormous medical claims through corrupt chiropractors. Much of H is for Homicide is taken up with dramatic expositions of how to run a large-scale fraud operation. At times it's as if the author did a certain amount of homework on how such scams are run, and then felt dutifully that she must illustrate it all by means of Kinsey Millhone and a Cadillac.

Though let me go meta for a moment (as if you could ever stop me). I really am not privy to the writing processes of any writers except myself. For all I know, Sue Grafton did no research at all for this book, drawing it all from logic and common sense; for all I know she was evangelical about getting information about auto-insurance fraud before the public and said the hell with plot, for all I know she wrote herself into a corner here and doesn't like the book any more than I do. I can only really say how reading the book strikes me. It strikes me like a textbook entry on Auto Insurance Fraud. That's all.

Millhone goes undercover not as the result of any great plan, but almost on a whim. She's investigating a fraud case for her sometime employers California Fidelity. She gives one of the crooks a false name, and within pages she's the crook's best friend, and she's in the heart of the gang, who quickly reveal all their most secret operations to her. Shades of Nancy Drew, honestly. In fact, the novel spins along so far down this intrepid-spy route that we ultimately learn that there's no gang at all: there's a single guy, surrounded by undercover agents, raising mayhem among the insurers of Southern California. This lacks some realism.

It also lacks Henry and Rosie and sordid, sleepy, incestuous Santa Teresa. Most of H takes place in Los Angeles, where human life is cheap and the folks Millhone encounters mostly anonymous. The novel reminds me of one of those TV episodes where they take a hero out of his/her milieu and have them be heroic somewhere else. I hope Millhone comes home for I. Of course, I'm several letters too late to be giving Sue Grafton timely advice.

Grafton, Sue. H is for Homicide. 1991. New York: Ballantine, 1992.