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j is for judgment

31 may 2012

In J is for Judgment, Kinsey Millhone works a "skip-trace." I wonder if real-life PIs talk about "skip-traces." They are the bread-and-butter of paperback private investigation, but I would bet that they represent the more outlandish reaches of actual private eyedom. Naturally, Millhone's current skip-trace involves embezzlement, impersonation, and murder.

Meanwhile, various long-lost cousins of Millhone's keep showing up to deliver long pages of drab exposition about family background she's been ignorant about. These are curious passages. Early on, Millhone (narrating) reveals that J is for Judgment will have a double theme: discovering the truth about Wendell Jaffe's disappearance, and the truth about Kinsey Millhone's extended family. There's plenty of mystery surrounding Wendell Jaffe, but the stuff about the Millhones and the Kinseys is just boring. In a way, it's meant to be, as counterpoint to the chaotic world of Millhone's profession. But that hardly makes us want to read about it.

The skip-trace mystery is more satisfying. There are lots of nice little Ross-Macdonald touches, like the same people turning up again and again in different relation to the investigation, and the fugitive bearing a shaving kit with somebody else's monogram. Wendell Jaffe, the target of Millhone's attention, has sailed off on a yacht and apparently died. He resurfaces, only to sail off on the same yacht again, and apparently die again. People never change.

The long-lost-family content in J is for Judgment did alert me to a dynamic I hadn't really noticed about the Millhone novels. By piecing together dates and ages, I infer that the novel is set in 1984. Millhone is 34, and her parents had died in a car crash in 1955 – though they were married in 1935, hardly impossible but at least somewhat unusual (she doesn't seem to be the youngest of many kids, for instance, and in fact doesn't have brothers or sisters, though who knows who will turn up in later novels).

Anyway, though it's set in 1984, the novel was published in 1993, meaning that there's a gap, or one has developed, or that time in Millhone's fictional world is moving more slowly than time in Sue Grafton's. The latter dynamic seems to offer a hedge against aging – not the novelist's or her readers', which are inevitable, but her character's. I'd kind of prefer Millhone to age at the same rate I do, but she can have more plausible adventures where she leaps around avoiding gunfire if she ages like a series-fiction hero and not like a real person.

Title watch: no, I don't know where the "Judgment" is in this one. Kinsey doesn't even get very judgmental. But "Justice" wouldn't fit well either. "Jeopardy" might have, but then you get into marketing disputes with Alex Trebek. So Judgment it is, I guess.

I am now starting to wonder if I can actually catch up with Sue Grafton. I've read ten of the twenty-two novels in the Kinsey Millhone series. One a month for the next year will bring me up to date, and even if Grafton has published W is for Wergeld by that time, it's only one more to read. Easier said than done, of course . . .

Grafton, Sue. J is for Judgment. 1993. New York: Fawcett [Random House], 1994.