The Barnes & Noble Review
Sue Grafton continues her inexorable march through the alphabet with the
15th Kinsey Millhone mystery, P Is for Peril. Like its predecessors, Grafton's
latest is both an elegant entertainment and a first-rate private-eye novel
that honors and extends the tradition from which it springs.
The story begins when Kinsey, against her better judgment, accepts an
assignment from crusty interior designer Fiona Purcell. Fiona's ex-husband,
prominent Santa Theresa physician Dowan Purcell, has been missing for several
weeks. Chief administrator for a nursing home called Pacific Meadows, Purcell
left work at the usual time one Friday night and has not been heard from
since. Local police have made little or no progress in tracing him, and
Kinsey finds herself following in their footsteps, futilely attempting to
make sense of an elusive, increasingly remote event.
Kinsey's investigation takes her beneath the placid surface of a
respected doctor's life, revealing an unexpectedly problematic underside. The
Dowan Purcell who gradually emerges is a secret drinker with a propensity for
kinky sex. His second marriage -- to former stripper Crystal Muscoe -- has a
carefully concealed dark side that manifests itself in the rebellious
behavior of his troubled teenage stepdaughter, Leila. Purcell's professional
life proves equally problematic: Pacific Meadows is currently being
investigated for numerous counts of Medicare fraud. Picking her way slowly
through this lethal combination of elements, Kinsey searches, with typical
persistence, for the key to Dowan Purcell's disappearance.
Supplementing this central plot line is a secondary story that has
perilous implications of its own. While conducting a search for affordable
new office space, Kinsey stumbles across a rental opportunity that proves too
good to be true, placing her in dangerously close proximity to a pair of
fraternal landlords with undisclosed secrets of their own. Cutting
effortlessly back and forth between these interconnected narratives, Grafton
gives us yet another irresistible novel. Her bright, energetic prose, her
precise eye for character and landscape, and her virtually flawless sense of
pace come cleanly together once again, reaffirming Grafton's position as one
of the most engaging, consistently reliable suspense novelists working in
America today. (Bill Sheehan)
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. His book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, At the Foot of the Story Tree, has been published by Subterranean Press (www.subterraneanpress.com).
Another Sue Grafton alphabet mystery featuring heroine P.I. Kinsey Millhone. The ex-wife of a prominent physician retains Kinsey to find out what has happened to her mussing, onetime mate. Medicare fraud, hidden agendas galore, intriguingly flawed characters and more than a whiff of violence make this mystery a fast-paced summer read. Grafton fans will see this, the 16th in the series, as proof positive that she is getting stronger as a writer and that “P” stand for her most Perfect Production Yet. (17 Sep 2001)
In her 15th alphabetical mystery, Grafton deserves an A for maintaining her series's high standard of excellence. This time private investigator Kinsey Milhone is hired by Dr. Fiona Purcell to find her ex-husband, Dowan, a prominent physician who vanished with his passport and $30,000 in cash nine weeks earlier. Wondering what she can do that the Santa Rosa police haven't done already, Kinsey takes the case and quickly discovers that the nursing home Purcell administered is being investigated for Medicare fraud. Was Purcell involved or did the facility's owners have something to do with his disappearance? And what about his second wife, ex-stripper Crystal, who Fiona believes is having an affair with her personal trainer? At the same time, Kinsey's losing streak with men continues as she is pursued romantically by her new office landlord's brother. Unfortunately for Kinsey, her new Mr. Right and his sibling are suspects in the murder of their parents. As usual, Grafton mixes an intriguing plot, well-developed characters, and humor into an entertaining summer read. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/00; a Literary Guild main selection.] Wilda Williams, "Library Journal" Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Nine weeks after Dr. Dowan Purcell left the Pacific Meadows medical facility he administered, then vanished along with his passport and $30,000, his ex-wife Fiona, disgusted alike at the Santa Teresa Police Department's lack of progress on the case and the lackadaisical attitude of Dow's current wife, ex-stripper Crystal, calls in Kinsey Millhone. What can Kinsey do that the cops haven't or can't? She can rattle the cages at Crystal's place-where her messed-up teenaged daughter Leila and her personal trainer Clint Augustine take turns creating opportunities for gossip-and at Pacific Meadowswhere an investigation for Medicare fraud has blown some employees away and left the rest paranoid. Faced with the need to investigate not only Dow's big, quarrelsome family but Meadows moneymen Joel Glazer and Harvey Broadus, what's a shamus to do? Spend some quality time getting just a little too close to her new landlord's twin brother, of course, providing the heat behind Grafton's title while extending Kinsey's string of relationships with unsuitable men. After the narrow focus of Kinsey's last few alphabetical adventures, the generous canvas here is a joy, and if the wealth of characters and subplots prevents Grafton from keeping any of them in the frame for very long, the audaciously foreshortened denouement shows her heroine at her most beguiling. After twenty years updating the private-eye tradition, Grafton shows she can spin a classic yarn with all the breadth of her masters, and a sharper eye for detail than any of them.
From the Publisher
“P IS FOR PERIL CRACKLES WITH SUSPENSE AND POPS WITH SURPRISES.”
“GRAFTON COOKS UP SCENARIOS THAT GET YOUR WHEELS TURNING . . . SHE’LL SEE TO IT THAT YOU’RE UP HALF THE NIGHT READING TO THE END.”
–San Francisco Chronicle
“SHARP-EYED AND SHARP-TONGUED [KINSEY MILLHONE] IS AS CAPABLE AND ACERBIC AS EVER.”
–The Wall Street Journal
Read an Excerpt
The house on Old Reservoir Road appeared to be in the final phases of construction. I spotted the site as I rounded the curve, recognizing the unfinished structure from Fiona Purcell’s description. To my right, I could see a portion of the reservoir for which the road was named. Brunswick Lake fills the bottom of a geological bowl, a spring-fed body that supplied the town with drinking water for many years. In 1953 a second, larger catch basin was established, and now Brunswick is little more than an irregular blue splotchlet on maps of the area. Swimming and boating are forbidden, but seasonally the migrating water birds rest on the placid surface as they make their way south. The surrounding hills are austere, gentle swells rising to the mountains that mark the northernmost boundary of the Santa Teresa city limits.Copyright 2002 by Sue Grafton
I parked my VW on the gravel berm and crossed the two-lane road. The steeply pitched lot was still bare of landscaping and consisted entirely of raw dirt and boulders with a dusting of weeds taking hold. At street level, a big commercial Dumpster was piled high with debris. A small grove of signs planted in the yard announced the names of the building contractor, the painting contractor, and the architect, though Mrs. Purcell had been quick to assure me by phone that she’d drawn up the plans herself. The design—if that’s what you want to call it—would have been approved by the Department of Defense: an implacable series of concrete boxes, staunch and unadorned, stacked up against the hillside under a pale November sun. The facade was as blank as a bunker, a radical contrast to the sprawling Spanish-style homes on adjacent properties.Somewhere to the rear of the house, there must have been a driveway leading to garages and a parking pad, but I opted for the stairs built into the barren hillside. At six a.m., I’d done a three-mile jog, but I’d skipped my Friday-morning weight lifting to keep this early appointment. It was just now eight o’clock and I could feel my butt dragging as I mounted the steps.
Behind me, I could hear a dog bark. Its deep-throated yaps echoed through the canyon, conveying a message of excitement. A woman was calling, “Trudy! Truuddy!” while the dog barked on. She emitted a piercing whistle, and a young German shepherd came bounding over the hill, heading in my direction at full speed. I waited, bracing myself for the force of muddy feet, but at the last possible second, the whistle came again and the dog sprinted off. I continued climbing Fiona’s wide concrete steps, tacking twice before I reached the upper terrace with its plain limestone portico that shaded the front entrance. By then, my thighs were burning, I was huffing and puffing, and my heart was rat-a-tat-tatting like machine-gun fire. I could have sworn there was less oxygen in the air up here, but I’d actually only climbed the equivalent of two stories and I knew it was probably no more than three- to four-hundred feet above sea level. I turned, pretending to admire the view while I recovered my breath.
From this aerie, I could see the broad, shimmering band of the Pacific Ocean stitched to the shoreline some five miles away. Before me, the day was so clear, I could almost count the mountain ridges on the islands twenty-six miles out. Behind me, the clouds were peering over the mountaintops, a fast-moving blanket of dark gray in advance of a storm. San Francisco, four hundred miles to the north of us, was already feeling its lash.
By the time I rang the bell, my breathing had slowed and I’d done a quick mental review of the subject I was here to discuss. Fiona Purcell’s ex-husband, Dr. Dowan Purcell, had been missing for nine weeks. She’d had a messenger deliver a manila envelope filled with newspaper clippings that recapped events surrounding his disappearance. I’d sat in my office, tilted back in my swivel chair, my Sauconys propped on the edge of my desk while I studied the articles she’d sent. She’d arranged them chronologically but had otherwise presented them without editorial comment. I’d been following the story in the local papers, but I’d never anticipated my involve- ment in the case. I found it helpful to have the sequence laid out again in this truncated form.
I noticed that over the course of nine weeks, the character of the coverage had shifted from the first seventy-two hours of puzzlement, through days of feverish speculation, and into the holding pattern that represented the current state of the investigation. Nothing new had come to light—not that there was ever much to report. In the absence of fresh revelations, the public’s fascination had begun to dwindle and the media’s attention to the matter had become as chilly and abbreviated as the brief November days. It is a truth of human nature that we can ponder life’s mysteries for only so long before we lose interest and move on to something else.
Dr. Purcell had been gone since Friday, September 12, and the lengthy column inches initially devoted to his disappearance were now reduced to an occasional mention nearly ritual in its tone. The details were recounted, but the curiosity had shifted to more compelling events. Dr. Purcell, sixty-nine years old, had practiced family medicine in Santa Teresa since 1944, specializing in geriatrics for the last fifteen years. He’d retired in 1981. Six months later, he’d been licensed as the administrator of a nursing care facility called Pacific Meadows, which was owned by two businessmen. On the Friday night in question, he’d worked late, remaining in his office to review paperwork related to the operation of the nursing home. According to witnesses, it was close to nine o’clock when he stopped at the front desk and said good-night to the nurses on duty. At that hour, the occupants had settled down for the night. The corridors were empty and the residents’ doors were closed against the already dimmed hall lights. Dr. Purcell had paused to chat with an elderly woman sitting in the lobby in her wheelchair. After a cursory conversation, less than a minute by her report, the doctor passed through the front door and into the night. He retrieved his car from his reserved space at the north side of the complex, pulled out of the lot, and drove off into the Inky Void from which he’d never emerged. The Santa Teresa Police and the Santa Teresa County Sheriff’s Departments had devoted endless hours to the case, and I couldn’t think what avenues remained that hadn’t already been explored by local law enforcement.
I rang the bell again. Fiona Purcell had told me she was on her way out of town, a five-day trip to San Francisco to purchase furniture and antiques for a client of her interior design firm. According to the papers, Fiona and the doctor had been divorced for years. Idly, I was wondering why she’d been the one who called me instead of his current wife, Crystal.
I saw a face appear in one of the two glass panels that flanked the entrance. When she opened the door, I saw that she was already dressed for travel in a double-breasted pin-striped suit with wide lapels. She held a hand out. “Ms. Millhone? Fiona Purcell. Sorry to make you wait. I was at the back of the house. Please come in.”
“Thanks. You can call me Kinsey if you like. Nice meeting you,” I said.
We shook hands and I moved into the entrance hall. Her handshake was limp, always startling in someone who, otherwise, seems brisk and businesslike. I placed her in her late sixties, close to Dr. Purcell’s age. Her hair was dyed a dark brown, parted on one side, with puffy bangs and clusters of artificially constructed curls pulled away from her face and secured by rhinestone combs, a style affected by glamour-girl movie stars of the 1940s. I half-expected an appearance by John Agar or Fred MacMurray, some poor, feckless male who’d fallen prey to this vixen with her fierce shoulder pads. She was saying, “We can talk in the living room. You’ll have to pardon the mess.”
Scaffolding had been erected in the foyer, reaching to the lofty ceiling. Drop cloths lined the stairs and the wide corridor leading to the rear of the house. To one side of the stairs, there was a console table and a streamlined chrome lamp. Currently, we seemed to be the only two on the premises.
“Your flight’s at ten?” I asked.
“Don’t worry about it. I’m eight minutes from the airport. We have at least an hour. May I offer you coffee? I’m having mine in here.”
“No, thanks. I’ve had two cups this morning and that’s my limit most days.”
Fiona moved to the right and I followed in her wake, crossing a broad expanse of bare cement. I said, “When do the floors go in?”
“These are the floors.”
I said, “Ah,” and made a mental note to quit asking about matters far beyond my ken.
The interior of the house had the cool, faintly damp smell of plaster and fresh paint. All the walls in range were a dazzling white, the windows tall and stark, unadorned by any curtains or drapes. A sly glance behind me revealed what was probably the dining room on the far side of the entry- way, empty of furniture, subdivided by rhomboids of clear morning light. The echo of our footsteps sounded like a small parade.
In the living room, Fiona gestured toward one of two matching armchairs, chunky and oversized, upholstered in a neutral-toned fabric that blended with the gray cement floor. A large area rug showed a densely woven grid of black lines on gray. I sat when she did, watching as she surveyed the space with the practiced eye of an aesthete. The furnishings were striking: light wood, tubular steel, stark geometric shapes. An enormous round mirror, resting in a crescent of chrome, hung above the fireplace. A tall silver and ivory coffeepot, with a matching creamer and sugar bowl, sat on a silver tray on the beveled-glass coffee table. She paused to refill her cup. “Are you a fan of art deco?”
“I don’t know much about it.”
“I’ve been collecting for years. The rug’s a Da Silva Bruhns. This is Wolfgang Tumpel’s work, if you’re familiar with the name,” she said, nodding at the coffee service.
“Beautiful,” I murmured, clueless.