ALPHABET SOUP: Sue Grafton is quite possibly Santa Barbara’s best-known author. She’s also got to be one of the most prolific. Her latest novel, U Is for Undertow, is the 21st in a series of alphabetically titled detective thrillers, each of which has followed the exploits of a single protagonist. Even readers who aren’t necessarily into tales of criminals, creeps, and those who catch them in the act have to admit that’s a literary triumph.
From 1987’s A Is for Alibi onward, Grafton has crafted and developed the world of private investigator Kinsey Millhone, and what a thrilling world it is, demanding that its indefatigable protagonist probe murders, face down crazed attackers, break criminal rings, outwit hitmen, expose untruth after untruth, and cope with the recurring appearances of on-again, off-again boyfriends. Orphaned by an auto wreck at an early age, twice divorced, and having seen far more personal and professional turmoil than most, Millhone is something of a grown-up tomboy, unconcerned about physical glamour and just as enthusiastic about her fast food as her exercise regimen. A former police officer, she jumped that set of tracks to become her own boss by founding her one-woman private investigation service, which has attracted intrigue-prompting secondary characters like moths to the proverbial flame.
Millhone lives and experiences most of her exploits and perils in Santa Teresa, a coastal Californian town with its own small airport and a population a shade fewer than 100,000. Sound familiar? As Grafton has also set all of her novels in the 1980s, longtime Santa Barbara residents should find plenty of thinly veiled local color of the past. But judging by the books’ New York Times bestseller list positions, a great many non-locals have found much to love as well.
U Is for Undertow finds Millhone in 1988, the year the nervous, 27-year-old Michael Sutton turns up at her home and spills all the details he can about an eerie incident he witnessed way back at age six. That was the time when a four-year-old Santa Teresa girl made headlines by going missing and never resurfacing; Michael happened to spot a pair of shady fellows bury an object of suspiciously similar size. The story thus weaves between two starkly different time periods: the now fully nostalgic ’80s and the long-mythologized ’60s. Dedicated Grafton fans will recognize this parallel-time-period form of storytelling, first employed in the series in 2006’s S Is for Silence, which bounced between 1953 and 1987 and became a bestseller to the tune of 1.2 million copies.
One might assume that, in her 21st starring role, Millhone couldn’t possibly possess any more traits not yet revealed to Grafton’s readers. But then, they haven’t heard much about her high school days, many of which occurred during the era on which her investigation hinges. In U Is for Undertow, Grafton manages to develop her heroine yet further as she throws her into a whole new sort of challenge. By using multiple viewpoints to shed light on themes like the accuracy of human memory and society’s treatment of children, the author once again does what she’s so often lauded as doing best: taking the predictably conventional in crime fiction and making it original.
Though currently on the road to support her book, Grafton hasn’t forgotten Santa Barbara. At 2 p.m. on Saturday, December 12, she’ll appear at the downtown Borders Books (900 State St.) to discuss and sign copies of Kinsey Millhone’s latest adventure. Call 899-3668 for details.