I read a lot of mystery novels. Like most mystery fans, I have authors whom I follow faithfully. When I give up on an author, it’s usually because their books have too much soap opera about the detective, and not enough actual crime story.
I gave up on Sue Grafton after N Is for Noose. I felt it should have been titled N Is for Nancy Drew. The big action-packed crisis moment in the book occurs when detective Kinsey Millhone is staying an a motel room and a man is lurking around outside. He breaks in and attacks Kinsey in the dark, but then he runs off, for no apparent reason. In the scuffle she breaks her finger. And that’s it for the action — an entirely ineffectual, wimpy assailant and a broken finger.
Today at the used book sale I spotted a pristine hardback copy of R Is for Ricochet. For 50 cents, I figured I’d give it a try.
The fact that this woman can get her novels published — in hardback, and from Putnam, no less — is explicable only on the theory that she’s sleeping with someone in the publisher’s office. These days you can say that about male authors too, if you see a need, so it’s no longer a sexist insult, it’s just an insult.
In the first 31 pages (three short chapters), about three pages are devoted to the crime story. The other 90% is filler. I’m not even sure it qualifies as soap opera, because there’s not much in the way of suds. The crime story, what there is of it, starts off not with a bang but with a whimper. A woman is being paroled from prison after serving 22 months for embezzlement, and Kinsey is hired to pick her up at the prison gate and see to it that she gets to her first parole appointment. That’s it. The embezzler is not onstage; we have yet to meet her; and in any event, embezzling is not a very dramatic crime, is it? Kinsey has been hired, essentially, to function as a taxi driver and babysitter for a middle-aged female gambling addict.
This unpromising opening is padded out with both an uncomfortable dinner party and an uncomfortable afternoon barbecue. For both occasions, Grafton devotes considerable attention to the items on the menu.
Here’s a lovely example of Grafton at her best (?). Chapter 3 — and remember, this is page 22, and there has so far been no action of a violent, criminal, or even suspicious nature — begins like this: “Saturday morning, I slept in until 8:00, showered, dressed, made a pot of coffee, and sat at my kitchen counter, where I ate my ritual bowl of cereal. Having washed both bowl and spoon, I returned to my stool and surveyed the place. I’m inordinately tidy and I’d just done a thorough housecleaning earlier in the week. My social calendar was unblemished and I knew I’d spend Saturday and Sunday alone as I did most weekends. Usually this doesn’t bother me, but today I felt an unsettling sensation. I was bored … In a moment of panic, I realized I didn’t even have a book to read. I was on the verge of leaving for the bookstore to stock up on paperbacks when my telephone rang.”
Here’s a tip for writers of detective fiction: If your detective is bored, it’s because you have failed to construct a viable plot. What I would speculate was running through Grafton’s mind, as she sat down and dashed off this paragraph, was something along the lines of, “Gee, I don’t know what happens next in this book. Well, okay, Kinsey gets up and eats breakfast, let’s start there.” In other words, Grafton’s own boredom, her utter disinterest in her story, got projected into the mind of her fictional narrator.
And telling us that she “washed both bowl and spoon” — that’s priceless! Following hard upon a page or two of Kinsey’s landlord’s brother’s medical complaints, and as a prelude to the aforementioned afternoon barbecue, which is why the telephone is ringing — oh, I can’t resist. Here’s a brief excerpt from the barbecue scene. “Near the kitchen sink, a woman in a pale blue uniform was piping a star of yellow filling onto each of a dozen hard-boiled egg halves … Parsley had been tucked around the platter. On the counter nearby there were two baking sheets of canapes ready for the oven and two other serving platters, one arranged with fresh cut vegetables and the other an assortment of imported cheeses interspersed with grapes.”
How exactly Kinsey Millhone was able to detect that the cheeses were imported, we’re not told. But she’s a detective. Detectives can spot imported cheeses at 20 paces.
What would Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, or Ross Macdonald say about this tripe? We can only imagine.
There’s a lesson here, even for musicians: Don’t get sucked in by your own hype. Grafton’s failing, and it’s a deep and dreadful failing, is that she was so successful with her first few books that she no longer has to work at it. Anything she dribbles out will be published. It will be bought by untold thousands of adoring fans. Some of them don’t know any better, and some of them may feel vaguely dissatisfied but hopeful that the next book will be better. Grafton doesn’t care about giving them a real crime novel. She’s just churning out soap opera.