Friday, October 13, 2017

Book Review: 'U is for Undertow' by Sue Grafton

"Let destruction come upon him unexpectedly,
And let his net that he has hidden catch himself;
Into that very destruction let him fall." -- Psalm 35:8

Masterful Sue Grafton deftly handles three timeframes in this story of love and betrayal. The "present" is 1988, the mystery's past is found in the 1963 through 1967 period. Her own family's history is revealed for the period of the mid to late 1950s. The artful Grafton moves smoothly from one time to another, much in the way that our attention can shift rapidly from observation to memory and back again. Rarely does she let the current day intrude into the earlier time periods with inadvertent missteps. It's impressive.

Were you ever fascinated by watching carefully lined-up dominoes be rapidly toppled, one after another, after the first one in the sequence is tipped over? If so, you'll love this story. The plot is built around that device. One action or event triggers another, and another, and so on until no more dominoes are standing. It's the most difficult kind of plot to develop in a credible way, and Ms. Grafton carries it off very well indeed.

As the book opens, the local police have sent Michael Sutton over with a story about having seen as a child two men burying a mysterious bundle about the time when a little girl had been kidnapped (who was never found, even though the ransom was paid). Sutton is convinced that the two events have something in common and is willing to pay for a day of Kinsey Millhone's time to check it out. A lot of what he wants Kinsey to do he could do himself, so he's holding something back. With her usual doggedness, Kinsey makes fast work of the case and helps Sutton locate the site of the burial. What will they find?

In the same way that a newspaper story about the old kidnapping triggered Sutton's memory, the search for the burial site triggers more unexpected reactions and events. And on the story develops. One little thing leads to another, and before long the consequences of secret sins inexorably reveal themselves with lethal consequences. Ms. Grafton does a superb job of keeping the details of who did what, when, and where mysterious until just before the very end. It's excellent plot-development sleight of hand at work.

Although Kinsey is a private detective, there's a lot of the police procedural about this book that will reward those who like stories about careful, thorough investigations.

The book's major theme moves beyond crime and detection to explore what makes a family. You'll naturally see more bad examples than good ones. At the end, you'll probably be re-examining your own family relationships.

Ms. Grafton seems determined to lift this series higher and higher by extending the challenges she addresses in the stories and the issues she addresses. Once again she succeeds.

Brava, Ms. Grafton!

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Donald Mitchell. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.