Monday, November 30, 2009

U is for Undertow by Sue Grafton

Tomorrow is release date for Sue Grafton's U is for Undertow. If you've been disappointed by recent books in the series, don't hesitate to pick this one up. Of course, I'm a cold case fan, so I'm prejudiced, but I think this is the best Kinsey Millhone investigation in recent years.

In April 1988, Kinsey accepted an unusual case. Michael Sutton was referred to her by a police detective who thought there just might be something to his story. Sutton thought it was possible he had information about the disappearance of a four-year-old girl, Mary Claire Fitzhugh, in 1967. Her body was never found, but as a six-year-old, he remembered two men digging a hole, men who admitted they were pirates, to a young boy's pleasure. Twenty-one years later, when the story of the little girl's kidnapping was in the newspaper as an unsolved case, it occurred to Sutton that he might have seen the kidnappers.

The police were right. Kinsey did like to pick at cases, and she was willing to spend a little time trying to find an unmarked grave. In the next two weeks, she found odd clues, ranging from a dead dog to another kidnapped little girl. She also learned how unreliable her client was. How can a detective trust the story told by an unreliable witness?

While working on Sutton's case, Kinsey took care of other business, including her own family issues. After not having a family for so many years, she's overwhelmed by their requests for her attention. A couple people, including her cousin, continue to push, while Kinsey pushes back against the family. Finally, a set of letters pushes her to do her own investigation.

Kinsey is still Kinsey Millhone, stuck in the 1980s, and living her Spartan life. I loved a paragraph in which Kinsey is trying to look sharp while meeting her cousin, a paragraph that sums up Kinsey's lifestyle perfectly. "I'd been using a hand-knit wool scarf along the bottom of the door to the upstairs bath, keeping out the drafts that crept through the crack where there should have been a threshold. I snatched up the scarf, shook off a few woofies, and slung it around my neck....I was as they say, a sight for sore eyes."

As others have said, since Kinsey is stuck in the 1980s, she never ages, but she also doesn't have access to the technology we use today - no Internet, no computer, no cell phone. She's impressed with the fax machine she uses at a notary's. As a librarian who worked in the 1980s, though, Kinsey's use of the public library for reference makes me nostalgic. It's wonderful to see someone who still pulls the directories, making practical use of the reference tools available.

Sue Grafton is a true master at changing the styles of her books, keeping them fresh after twenty-one books. U is for Undertow incorporates Kinsey's viewpoint, along with accounts of people who were involved in events surrounding the 1967 kidnappings. It's fascinating to read the earlier stories, wondering how those people intersect with Kinsey Millhone's latest case. Kinsey hints at the beginning of the case, when she says, "Here's the odd part. In my ten years as a private eye, this was the first case I ever managed to resolve without crossing paths with the bad guys. Except at the end, of course."

It's an odd case for Kinsey Millhone. And, it's a wonderful book for Sue Grafton. U is for Undertow, a cold case, is my favorite Grafton in quite a while. If you've given up on the recent books, pick this one up. And, if you read every one of Kinsey Millhone's adventures, this is a 416 page, comfortable, satisfying book.

Sue Grafton's website is www.suegrafton.com

U is for Undertow by Sue Grafton. G.P. Putnam's Sons, ©2009. ISBN 9780399155970 (hardcover), 416p.

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FTC Full Disclosure - I received my copy of U is for Undertow from Sue Grafton's publisher, as a thank you, with no guarantee I would review the book.

34 comments:

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I haven't read the series since the first few books--I think I need to go back to it!

It would be SO hard not to include modern technology in the books. She's really got to think hard to keep from lapsing, I'd imagine!

Elizabeth
Mystery Writing is Murder

Lesa said...

I agree, Elizabeth. Of course, as others have said, she's now writing a historical mystery series. But, I can't imagine writing, and not slipping up and including our modern technology.

A Buckeye Girl Reads said...

I'm glad this series is still going strong. My mom recently started reading them & loves them. I haven't read them since C or so.

Lesa said...

Oh, your mother has terrfic reading ahead of her! I hope she enjoys the series.

Literary Feline said...

My husband and I are big fans of this series. I'm hoping he doesn't pick up a copy as I'd like to get him it for Christmas. I am glad to hear you enjoyed it, Lesa!

Lesa said...

Thanks, Wendy! Well, I hope he puts off reading it until he gets his Christmas gift. Good luck with that. My father was always notorious for going out and buying just what my mother planned to give him for Christmas.

le0pard13 said...

My wife loves this series. Thanks, Lesa.

bermudaonion said...

I love Kinsey Millhone, so I'm really looking forward to this book.

Lesa said...

I love Kinsey, as well, Bermudaonion. And, this one is one of my favorites from the whole series. I hope you like it as much as I did!

Lesa said...

You're welcome, le0pard13. I hope she loves this one as much as I did. I actually kept my copy, instead of donating it to the library, because it was my favorite of the recent books.

caite said...

I gave up on this series years ago...but I might consider picking it up again with this one.

Lesa said...

Naturally, Caite, since Kinsey doesn't change, you can pick up the series at any point. If you like cold cases, I'd try this one.

Douglas said...

I haven't read U yet, but i've read a few reviews including Lesa's and think the Michael Sutton character sounds like a loser. I don't mean to be rude, but who in there right mind would not report something suspicious like a grave in the woods. I guess he was just a scared kid. Anyway, I look forward to it.
-D is for Douglas

Lesa said...

You're right, Douglas, he is a loser. But, once you read the book, you'll discover he did have reasons for not reporting it at the time. Hope you enjoy the book!

Anonymous said...

I agree this one was one of the better ones. However, I was left with three questions unanswered:
1) Why did Jon and Walker bury the dog?
2) What became of the $25,000 for Mary Claire - or did she die before they collected???
3) Was Mike Sutton correct on the date of the dog burial; or were his siblings, Dee and Ryan correct about being at Disneyland?

Lesa said...

I think Jon and Walker buried the dog so no one would think they had Mary Claire. Just my opinion.

I never thought about #2, but I'm still wondering about #3 as you did. I don't think it was ever answered. Great questions. Wish I knew the answers now!

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Lesa said...

Thank you, Alstair.

Anonymous said...

I think a major flaw in the book is that what Michael Sutton reported had to have taken place on the weekend of his 6th birthday (given the date of the kidnapping). Yet Michael's sister and brother presented pretty convincing evidence that the entire family was at Disneyland that weekend and that the family that owned the house where Michael was playing had left town before that weekend. This discrepancy is never explained.

Lesa said...

You're right, Anonymous. I don't know if you mentioned it earlier or not, but someone else mentioned 3 points, and that was the major one that bothered them. I agree with you, but hadn't noticed it at the time I read the book.

Claire Bear said...

I'm not impressed with the prose, which is peppered with too many trite phrases like "god knows what." The occasional clever turn of phrase is overused. A comment can "net a smile" once in a novel--but not twice or (I believe it was) three times. The undertow metaphor, which rewards thought, is underutilized. Other metaphors are just plain bad. A peanut-butter-and-pickle sandwich is self-deprecatingly described by the narrator as "not the pinnacle of the food pyramid," but the pinnacle of the food pyramid is exactly where one finds foods that one should avoid. These offenses can be generously understood as hallmarks of the narrator/detective's voice. Fine, but it doesn't make me want to hear more from her. Harder to excuse are anachronisms in the descriptions, the narrator speaking casually of leaf blowers and "registered sex offenders" in 1967. Neither of these details was used in any important way in plot, character, or theme, so why include them? The leaf blower should just have been crossed out in an early draft. But the phrase "registered sex offender" could have been interesting in its absence, had the sexual dynamics of the main characters been exploited in a deeper exploration of the boys' motives for the abductions--and a more suspenseful treatment of the outcomes.

Lesa said...

What a thoughtful analysis, Claire. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Summary of Discrepancies:
1. Michael Sutton was or was not at the scene of the burial, which is the crux of the entire novel.

2. Leaf blowers in 1967. The culprits wanted noise to cover any screams from the child, but leaf blowers were not common. Lawn mower would have worked.

3. Registered sex offenders in 1967.

Other questions are "answered" only as Kinsey conjectures what might have happened. The reader must figure out that these conjectures are correct.

A. Jon and Walker bury the dog to provide an excuse in case the hole is unearthed.

B. Mary Claire dies from an interaction of Valium and her anti- seizure med.

C. The $25,000 was never picked up because Jon&Walter discovered the ink.

D. The dog collar was left on Ulf by accident.

E. The thumb print was an accident.

Pat Finder said...

What surprises me, reading the reviews, is that nobody was bothered by the aggressive sex scene between Jon and Destiny.

Pat Finder said...

I love peanut butter and pickle sandwiches, and that Kinsey likes them too endears me to this character. Would have missed the mention of them if it wasn't there.

Lesa said...

Anonymous,

You really broke this book down. Thank you for providing the details.

Lesa said...

I'm afraid it's been too long, Pat, since I read the book. I can't even remember the scene between Jon and Destiny. Someday, I'm going to have to try those peanut butter and pickle sandwiches, since you like them, too.

Jenny said...

I finished the book today and found this blog while searching for discussion about the Disneyland story and the one about the Kirkendalls leaving town before Michael's sighting of "the pirates." Maybe the author will answer our questions in one of the final books in the series. I hate the thought of waiting for "V" to come out! I love these books.

Jenny said...

Oh, gosh! Why does her website seem to indicate "V is for Vengeance" won't be out until November and yet it was apparently released in 2011? Anyway, glad to hear it's available now. :)

Lesa said...

Yes, Jenny. V is already out. So, you don't have to wait! I don't know if we'll ever have answers for U though.

Anonymous said...

I can only think of one explanation as to why Michael Sutton's family is convinced they were at Disneyland on the day he claimed to have witnessed the "pirates" burying the body/dog/cash. Some cameras back then had a built-in date that was superimposed onto the photograph. My Dad had a camera that did that. The date could have been set incorrectly. But that is only speculation on my part.

Grafonite said...

Lots of unanswered questions here. Maybe I can help. John Walker did buy the dog to cover up burying the little girl. I think he was burying the little girl when Michael saw him so he had to make a quick switch in case he was discovered. Then he buried the little girl under the cement. Also, wasn't the $25,000 found with the body of the the little girl? Also, wasn't it introduced as a possible mistake by a grown man trying to remember accurately the dates he saw the burial as a child? They did find the dog so they know he saw something but the date was confused. All this is from memory so may not be accurate but can probably be proven. I hope it helps.

Anonymous said...

Another piece that doesn't fit. Mary was buried under the cement pad for the water heater. at the end of the book Jon comments about how they used the box from the water heater for Rain's playhouse. So the cement pad would already be in place before the kidnapping. As for the Disney thing, maybe Michael was there for his 5th birthday ... the six candles on the cake could carry out the tradition of "one to grow on."

Lesa said...

It's been interesting to see the pieces that don't fit for readers. Thank you!