Fiction: “I is for Innocent” by Sue Grafton

InnocentI almost just typed that I is for Innocent was written by Kinsey Millhone. That’s … that’s great, Alaina. It’s been almost a month since you posted here, bringing your book blog backlog back up to 9 reviews (plus one year-end review!), and you can’t even distinguish between the author and the main character? I mean, on the one hand, I guess kudos to Ms. Grafton for continuing to make a character seem real enough that these books could be an autobiography? But on the other hand, how are you so tired, Alaina, you slept nine hours last night and just woke up from an hour’s nap, you should have this straight by now! Also, the book is right by your elbow. Come on, son.

SO ANYWAY, we’re nearing the end of the 2015 backlog, and as December was closing out, I was chomping at the bit to get as many books completed as possible. (Lousy stupid Mysteries of Udolpho, throwing off my groove.) Apparently when I’m hitting that mark, I reach for Sue Grafton because a) I’m still at the point where I’ve read them before and b) they’re a quick read. I say “apparently” because that’s exactly what I did when I read H is for Homicide back in December of 2013. So, much like when I read Festival of Deaths, it had been at least two years in-between books of series.

I’d say I need to get better at that – and, spoiler alert, I do for one of the series I’ve mentioned before – but I just got the second book in a series from the library today where I read the first book back in 2011. So, five years. Great. Good job, Alaina; you practically have to read the first book all over again to get going.

Thank god I don’t have to do that with the Sue Grafton series; I’d never finish.

As I mentioned in my review of H is for Homicide, Kinsey gets separated from California Fidelity, the insurance company that provided her office space in exchange for investigative services. Before I is for Innocent picks up, Kinsey has found a new place to operate: in the office building of Kingman and Associates. She’d done some work for Lonnie before, and they have a good arrangement. The book starts off by Lonnie giving Kinsey some work: the murder of Isabelle Barney is being dealt with again, this time in a civil suit against the unproven killer, her ex-husband David Barney. The private investigator Lonnie originally hired to gather evidence has unfortunately dropped dead of a heart attack, and the trial begins in three weeks. Kinsey thinks it’s going to be a simple case of gathering depositions and reviewing Morley Shine’s PI files. As usually happens when Kinsey gets involved, it’s not easy at all.

Everyone hates David Barney, but he had an alibi for Isabelle’s murder, so he got off at the criminal trial. Now Isabelle Barney’s first ex-husband is trying David civilly in an attempt to get closure. And Kinsey’s learning all sorts of stuff about David and who else may be a suspect, when David Barney calls her and proclaims his innocence. And unfortunately, what he’s saying starts to make sense.

Kinsey follows the evidence through numerous twists and turns, and at the end of the book, Kinsey gets to show her bad-ass side off. Compared to other series I read, there really isn’t a lot of violence in the Alphabet series, and while Kinsey does put herself into dangerous situations, it’s rare that those situations become life-threatening. Without spoiling the twists and turns I mentioned, Kinsey gets into a shoot-out with a bad guy, and the difference between life and death is literally one bullet. It is a less funny, more tense version of the Who Killed The Chandelier bit.

Man, I haven’t watched that movie in forever.

The other thing Kinsey deals with in this book is near-crippling doubt. Getting fired, so-to-speak, from California Fidelity hit her harder than she had originally thought. Kinsey’s traditional attempt to deal with things is usually to throw off a sarcastic, self-deprecating remark and continue on her merry way. (I wonder if that’s where I get it from …) But being out of a work-home, and now having to forge a new version of a working relationship with Lonnie — she experiences doubt. Does she still have it in her to continue to be a private investigator?

Spoiler alert! This book is letter I. We haven’t even reached the halfway point of the series. Yes, she’s still got it.

But everyone goes through moments of doubt in their lives. And it’s comforting to know that a person that you admire (fictional or otherwise) can have the same experience as you, even when that person is a bad ass that can demonstrate the ability to count bullets in the middle of a firefight.

And … that’s about all I’ve got for I is for Innocent. One more book until 2016!

Grade for I is for Innocent: 3 stars

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Fiction: “H is for Homicide” by Sue Grafton

H is for HomicideTrue confessions: I was unable to finish the other two books I wanted to on the 31st.  So my final count for books read in 2013 will be 27, down two from 2012’s already-record-low count of 29.  There are a lot of factors that affected this – Dracula‘s boredom-making, Island of Vice being extremely sloggy; plus outside factors, like how much I was working, how much I was crocheting, and how much I was sleeping.  So while I’m not exactly thrilled with the fact that every year I’ve had this blog, my yearly count has declined, I can at least say that in December of 2013 I finished three books, compared to a big fat zero in December of 2012.  Go three hundred percent increase for me!

Every Christmas, my parents get me the new Sue Grafton novel – when she publishes, of course.  I think it’s been a couple of years since V is for … whatever it is was published, so I didn’t get one last year.  But it’s tradition: if there’s a new Grafton novel, chances are it’ll be under the tree for me.  This year it was in a box under the tree for me, to keep me wondering if people forgot about the one (or two) specific things I requested.  That Dad – always trying to keep me guessing.  (Spoiler alert: I got everything I asked for this Christmas, including having Christmas off.  Huzzah!)

So anyway, let’s flashback to after Christmas morning but before afternoon when we all packed up to go see Saving Mr. Banks, and I’m reading H is for Homicide:

Mom: What, are you reading them all over again to get caught up?
Me: Sort of.  Not all in one sitting.  It’s been a while since I read G.

And it has been.  Looking back, I read G is for Gumshoe in August of 2012.  2012, you guys.  That is a long time to go between books in a series.  Luckily, I’ve read G and H multiple times so the gap between reading them didn’t affect my knowledge of what was going on.

H is for Homicide actually sets up the next stage in Kinsey Millhone’s life.  I’m not sure I’ve mentioned it before – mainly because I believe the previous novels I’ve reviewed here have only involved it tangentially – but Kinsey rents her office from California Fidelity Insurance, exchanging investigative work for the space.  Well, CF gets a big high muckety-muck up from Palm Springs to go through the branch and identify issues.  Mainly, payroll and claim issues.  Y’know, a bigshot penny pincher; a jackass, if you will.

And Kinsey and the asshole dislike each other on sight.  He can’t comprehend how she’s been using this office space for free, essentially, for a number of years.  As an independent contractor, she hasn’t filed all of the necessary (superlative) paperwork, she dresses in a turtleneck and jeans on a weekday (not even casual Friday!), and her attitude he believes to be poor.  In her head, Kinsey’s all, likewise.  But before they can get into their differences further, Kinsey is pulled into a massive auto insurance fraud investigation that leads her to Los Angeles.

Kinsey is given a claim that may be fraudulent – a big clue is that the physical address of the claimant, Bibianna Diaz, is nothing more than a vacant lot.  Through her channels of sleuthing – using her big cross-reference phone book, asking questions at the local police and sheriff’s departments – she is able to locate Bibianna.  That night, she manages to befriend Bibianna at a dive bar, and discovers that Bibianna is now dating Kinsey’s childhood friend and ex-cop Jimmy Tate.

Then shit goes bad.  A man and a woman – who Kinsey had seen at CF (badly) pretending to be insurance agents – show up at the bar and try to abduct Bibianna.  When she refuses, there’s a shoot-out between the couple and Tate.  Bibianna and Kinsey get arrested; Kinsey, so she can stick close to Bibianna, not because she wanted to punch out that cop.  She’s woken up at four in the morning by the guard, and brought into a conference room with homicide detective Con Dolan (who has appeared in previous books).  Turns out she’s into something deeper than just a runaway bride, her new boyfriend, and their car insurance fraud – it’s a ring of car insurance frauds, perpetrated by Bibianna’s ex, Raymond Maldonado.

Kinsey’s all prepared to get a wire and gather evidence for Lt. Dolan, but she and Bibianna are bailed out by Raymond before that can happen.  So now Kinsey’s shuffled off to Los Angeles with a crazed con man with Tourette’s, without any assistance from either Santa Teresa police or the LAPD.  She doesn’t have her trusty handbag or her gun, and she’s led Bibianna et. al. to believe that she is Hannah Moore, so she’s making it up as she goes.

But one of the best parts about Kinsey is her ability to think on her feet.  She rolls with the punches, and actually takes a tiny bit of pleasure in pretending to be Hannah Moore – she can say anything she wants to without any consequences.  She doesn’t have to watch her language, she can chastise Bibianna for being an idiot.  And in a stroke of luck for her, her candor actually puts her into Raymond’s good graces.

With H is for Homicide, the mystery doesn’t really come from a whodunit or a howdunit perspective – we know by page 100 who the ringleader of the insurance fraud is and how Bibianna is involved.  There is a minor mystery that Kinsey doesn’t solve until the end regarding a leak in the police department going to the fraudsters, but the main mystery is: how is Kinsey going to get out of this?

But get out of it she does – and I have to leave that information to the readers of the book, because that is a big ol’ spoiler – and when she returns, she has been ‘fired’ from California Fidelity and so no longer has an office.

Kinsey’s cast of supporting characters she usually works with – her landlord Henry, her diner pal Rosie – do not make any appearance in this novel.  But the people she interacts with in Los Angeles and the tension from being the wrong place at the wrong time makes up for that deficit.

I look forward to reading the rest of the alphabet – especially since I really don’t recall any specific details from the next few.  I know I’ve read up through M is for Malice at least once, and may have read N is for Noose.  I am 90% sure I haven’t read O is for Outlaw – oh wait, maybe I did; is that the one where [spoiler spoiler spoiler]?  *checks Wikipedia* Okay, so upon review, yes, I have read through O is for Outlaw.  Which means I’ve probably only read I through L twice?  And M, N and O once?  I know I haven’t read beyond O.

So the next few books will be a nice journey.  I know Kinsey finds some new office space, and connections from her past crop up in a couple of books.  There are, of course, more dangerous situations she gets herself into, but the best thing I can say about the Kinsey Millhone series is that, no matter how many times I read a title, I always take away something new or fresh.  They are always enjoyable.

Grade for H is for Homicide: 4 stars

FIction: “G” is for Gumshoe

And finally, more than a year after the last entry, I come to G is for Gumshoe. G is, quite simply, one of my favorite books of all time. But not in the ways you may think. For instance, the writing in G isn’t any better than any other mystery Kinsey embarks on; nor is the plot that surprising, terrifying, or different. When I reread G (and this read was, like, number 5, I believe), I am immediately transported back to when I read it the first time. This book — for me, at least — is a highway to nostalgia, when I was first allowed to read “grown-up books.”

Oh shit, Pandora started playing early Cranberries. Talk about nostalgia!

Anyway. The plot first. It’s Kinsey’s birthday, and a woman named Irene Gersh hires her to find her mother, Agnes Grey. Oh, I haven’t mentioned previously: Ms. Grafton always — always — names one of her characters with the letter in the series. Anyway, as Kinsey’s taking that case, an old work acquaintance calls her up and tells her that some guy she helped put in jail is getting out, and also, he has put a hit out on her. Kinsey, not believing it for a second (and hearing that the perp only paid someone fifteen hundred dollars for whacking her makes it even less believable), goes on her merry way to the Salton Sea near Death Valley to look for Agnes. She finds her in a hospital, disoriented and scared. As she arranges for Agnes to be transported back to Santa Theresa, a big red pickup truck runs her off the road, and then the driver comes at her with a tire iron and attempts to kill her. When a random dude drives by, the assassin gets in his truck and hightails it out of there.

Kinsey calls a former private detective, now in the security business, to come and act as her security detail slash bodyguard. Mr. Robert Dietz – known as Dietz throughout the novel, as Kinsey can’t always be personal enough to use first names – finds her in the Mojave and brings her back to Santa Theresa. Agnes comes back, then goes missing again, then ends up in the hospital, and then (SPOILER ALERT) she dies. Meanwhile, Kinsey and Dietz avoid death a couple of times. In the end, there’s another mystery around Agnes, but I don’t really want to talk about that, and Dietz and Kinsey have a small relationship until Dietz leaves town for a job.

When I first read G is for Gumshoe, I think I was either twelve or thirteen. I was at the age where I was getting bored with my Nancy Drews and my Trixie Beldens (RAISE YOUR HAND IF YOU READ THOSE), and my mother suggested the Sue Grafton series. I can’t remember if she’d read them before (“vetted,” if you will) or if she just thought they were more grown-up. But she directed me to the Mystery section in the Curtis Memorial Library and said, “Sure, those’ll be fine.” I still remember the light that was shining down that day. The bookcase was one of the shorter ones, so I had to stoop slightly to pick up B is for Burglar and G is for Gumshoe.

Why those two, you ask, seeing as how I am notorious for being a completist when it comes to series? “But Alaina,” you query: “You’ve always read a series in order, to the point where you had like, three copies of the same list on two different computers (and one hand-written) that ensures you always knew the order in which a series went [this was before Goodreads, obviously]. Why did you start with ‘B’ and skip ahead to ‘G’ when clearly, the alphabet gives you the perfect order?”

Because those were the only two available at the time, jackass.

So anyway. I read B is for Burglar, and liked it, and then I read G is for Gumshoe. And while the plot was good, but no twistier than in B, and while the characters were good — again, no better than in B, the whole plot about the tough chick needing the help of a man and yet resisting it every step of the way until they finally consummate their relationship …

Yeah. No wonder I’m fucked up romantically.

Because dudes, this was the first time I’d read a sex scene that wasn’t flowery in nature. I kid you not, from the first smoldering look to Kinsey waking up alone in bed to the smell of coffee being made in the morning, the whole scene is no more than five hundred words. Put into perspective? I’ve written three hundred more words in this entry than are in the sex scene.

But — and Mom, if you’re reading this? Maybe turn away or something? — it was hot. And even now, I-don’t-want-to-think-how-many-years-it’s-been-later, it’s still hot. It’s written in vague enough terms that we can let our imagination wander, yet doesn’t do the stupid “fade to black” thing that Stephenie Meyer did in her stupid highly anticipated (but not by me!) sex scene. It was sex between adults, not sex between some flirty flibbertigibbet and her male suitor. It was “wham, bam, thank you ma’am, now let me make you some coffee and later feel you up in a library” sex.

And it all happened on a spiral staircase. Which is yet another reason why I love spiral staircases. (Another being the long scene in Sleeping Beauty where she follows the bright light up the tower stairs to prick her finger on the spinning wheel. I mean, come on – that is a beautifully drawn sequence. And I’ve always loved that movie.)

But the best part about the relationship between Kinsey and Dietz — it doesn’t affect their working relationship. It doesn’t change the power balance. Kinsey maintains her independence; she just now has someone else watching her back if she can’t see it. She doesn’t become some simpering, sex-crazed woman; she is still able to function and work independent of Dietz. And at the tender age of twelve, it was here that I first saw that men and women could have sexual relations and not end up with a wedding or someone lovesick. Ever since that first reading, Kinsey Millhone has shone as a female role model for me, and I don’t think that will ever change.

Grade for “G” is for Gumshoe: 4 stars

Fiction: “F is for Fugitive” by Sue Grafton

This was another title I chose for my vacation. I began reading this on-board my flight from Phoenix to Ontario, and finished it this evening while waiting for a table at the Irvine Cheesecake Factory. I would have finished it quicker if there wasn’t so much driving going on.

This entry takes place two months after the conclusion of E is for Evidence. Kinsey Millhone has been staying with her landlord, Henry, on a temporary basis, as her apartment is being rebuilt after it exploded in the last entry. (Oh crap, I totally gave away the ending to that one. Er, sorry folks. BUT IT SAYS SO ON THE BACK OF THE BOOK.) Looking for some space, Kinsey accepts a case that takes her from her home in Santa Teresa, California, and puts her in the middle of Floral Beach.

She is hired by Royce Fowler, the owner of the Tides motel (or something like that). His son, Bailey Fowler, was accused of murdering his girlfriend, Jean Timberlake, seventeen years ago. He pled guilty, but then escaped from the San Luis Obispo men’s penal colony a year into his sentence. He changed his name and built a life for himself, but then got caught on a stupid thing (so stupid it’s inconsequential to the plot), and now he’s back in jail. Royce believes him to be innocent, and hires Kinsey to find the real killer.

Her investigation takes her all over the town of Floral Beach – to the principal of the high school Jean went to, Dwight Shales; to the town doctor and Jean’s employer at the time of her death, Dr. Dunne — not to mention his psycho wife, Elva. Pearl and his wife, Daisy, the owners of the town bar. And the rest of Bailey’s family: Ori, his mother that’s dying of diabetes, and his sister, Ann, who is managing the motel, taking care of Ori, as well as taking care of her father, who has less than six months to live from pancreatic cancer.

Yeah, it’s a cheery town all right.

Kinsey asks many questions, but doesn’t get much help from the townfolk. People there are perfectly happy to keep blaming Bailey for Jean’s death, especially since he pled the first time around. Not to mention that his friend, Tap, busts into the courtroom during his arraignment and busts him out of there (but not before dying).

Of course, Kinsey does find her answers. And what I like about the Kinsey Millhone mysteries is that you can read the book and think you know ‘who-dun-it,’ but it’s not until the last chapter that the final piece falls into place and the whole thing makes sense. There are other mysteries that I read where I can guess the killer before the detective; and that’s no fun.

But what was truly fun for me about this book was the fact that I picked this one out at random to take with me on vacation — I certainly didn’t mean to pick the one title that took place during towns I stayed in.

For those not in the know: Kinsey’s hometown of Santa Teresa is a thinly veiled version of Santa Barbara. In the first chapter, Kinsey explains that Floral Beach is about an hour and a half further up the coast from Santa Barbara, and from further descriptions, I’m led to believe that it’s just above San Luis Obispo.

Well, I stayed in a tiny town called Morro Bay last night, and drove through San Luis Obispo on my way south today. And let me tell you – Morro Bay’s about ten minutes away from San Luis, and all told, it was a good hour and a half before I hit Santa Barbara. I can’t think of another tiny town that Floral Beach could pass for. I mean, Morro Bay’s a tiny town, right on the water, with tons of ramshackle, seaside inns (you know the kind I mean). It was very cute, and I enjoyed my time there.

And it was tons of fun for me to drive throuh San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Lompoc. Santa Barbara because, as I said, it’s the non-fictional version of Santa Teresa (and also Sunnydale, for those keeping track – and don’t get me started on how if Torrance High School had been right on the PCH I totally would have turned off and taken pictures), but all I knew about Lompoc and San Luis Obispo prior to my trip (somewhat, not really) was that they were the homes of the California Federal Penitentiary and the Men’s Penal Colony, respectively.

See? I took that to prove I was there.

You don’t want to know how geeky I was when I drove past Ventura while “We Used to Be Friends” played on the CD I was listening to. (SUPER geeky.)

Grade for F is for Fugitive: 3 stars

Fiction: “E is for Evidence” by Sue Grafton

So what kills me about this book is that I was about twenty pages away from finishing it before going to the New Year’s Eve party in Providence, but instead of bringing it on the bus/train, I left it behind, mainly because the cover is completely separated from the rest of the book. (What? It’s old and I’ve read it twice before. Shut up.) This so easily could have been #36 in 2009, but … instead, it’ll have to be #1 in 2010.

Where we last left off, Kinsey had just found a deadbeat father. This entry picks up about three months after the end of D is for Deadbeat, with a routine insurance investigation (Kinsey rents her office space from California Fidelity Insurance, in exchange for the occasional insurance claim investigation). But about three chapters into the investigation, Kinsey is fingered as an accomplice in an arson-insurance fraud.

So now, Kinsey is her own client. She investigates as she usually would, but this time she’s not getting paid. The case takes place during the holidays, and her landlord Henry is visiting his family in Michigan, and her friend Rosie who runs the diner down the street is closed, and so our “gregarious loner” (as the back of the book proclaims) is actually feeling lonely.

In the midst of this emotional chaos drops her second husband, Daniel Wade. Kinsey always introduces herself as being … well:

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I cherish my unmarried state. I’m female, twice divorced, no kids, and no close family ties. I’m a private detective by trade.

So to meet one of those barely-mentioned husbands is a big deal for Kinsey.

There are the required turns and red herrings. It’s plenty good to keep your interest for a couple of days. I will say that if you start at the beginning (A is for Alibi) and keep reading through, G is for Gumshoe is my favorite (so far – I’ve only read up through M is for Malice).

Grade for E is for Evidence: 2.5 stars

Fiction: “D is for Deadbeat” by Sue Grafton

d is for deadbeatYet another stop on the train ride towards PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES, and finally I can say with confidence, yes, it shall be next. I needed a palate cleanser between New Moon and the Awesome.

Kinsey Millhone is the protagonist of Sue Grafton’s Alphabet series. I’ve read as far as “I” three times, and up to “O” at least once. This is attempt number 4 to get through the entire series without getting distracted.

Don’t get me wrong, this is one of the first mystery series I ever read, and I still adore it. There are just a lot more books in my little tiny room that I want to read. Plus, the majority of the series is still at my parents’s house back in Brunswick.

Anyhoodle. Kinsey operates a private detective agency in Santa Teresa, and this novel’s plot kicks off when this guy shows up at Kinsey’s office, asking her to deliver a very expensive cashier’s check. The guy turns up dead in the bay a couple of days later, and Kinsey is hired by his daughter to find the killer. The thread runs through San Luis Obispo, the men’s penitentiary the dead guy was in before being released, the families of those that died in a car crash, and a hooker from Los Angeles.

Kinsey is like a female Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. The series starts in the early 80’s, so she doesn’t have a lot in the way of Internet searches and/or computer spreadsheets to use. Her major tools are her VW bug that’s mostly rust, her typewriter, and a stack of index cards with a cork board.

I highly recommend the series – it’s one of my favorites, and an era will come to an end when Grafton finally reaches ‘Z is for Zenith’ (you heard it here first, folks). Start with A is for Alibi. If you’re like me, you’ll read it in a couple of days. It’s candyfloss; it’s enjoyable while reading, but it doesn’t stick with you afterward.

Actually, knowing how I usually handle candyfloss, maybe candyfloss isn’t the most apt of metaphors… *shrugs* oh well. You get my drift.

Grade for D is for Deadbeat: 2.5 stars