After 23 novels, Sue Grafton’s “Alphabet” series, featuring scrappy California private investigator Kinsey Millhone, is showing no signs of age. Instead, Grafton’s latest, X—which dispenses with her usual “… is for” title formula for the simple reason that she couldn’t make it work—is one of the most anticipated mysteries of the year. This is thanks not only to Grafton’s skill as a writer, but to her fictional creation Kinsey Millhone, one of those rare characters who feels very much like a friend or neighbor, not a paper creation.
X finds Millhone in 1989, thirty-eight years old, and financially flush. Grafton’s decision to have her heroine age slowly but predictably over the course of the books means the series has been as much a biography of Millhone as a bunch of mysteries; by now loyal readers could conceivably know more about Millhone’s family, friends, habits, and opinions than they do those of their own loved ones. And all that combines to make X an assured, gripping mystery displaying zero signs of exhaustion or lack of ideas. In fact, when the Alphabet Series is assessed and ranked when it closes with Z is for Zero (scheduled for 2019), X will likely sit very close to the top.
The Kinsey way
When we first met Kinsey Millhone, she was 32, and one of the great things about settling in with X is that you can appreciate how the character has evolved yet stayed true to her inception. Millhone remains a self-sufficient, intelligent investigator who has a good life, a life she appreciates and works hard for. She still struggles to do the right thing, and sometimes to know what that is, and she still loves a pickle-and-peanut-butter sandwich. But this is also a Kinsey who is subtly more mature, subtly wiser than the one we met more than 20 books ago. Grafton’s ability to inch her character forward in time without losing control of the setting and personality of her creation is amazing in its skill.
The complex mysteries
That’s right, mysteries plural, because this fantastic novel has Kinsey embroiled in three investigations (two more or less official, and one driven by Millhone’s instincts) that are all intriguing. In one, a wealthy woman hires her to find the son she gave up for adoption decades before—only for Kinsey to realize everything the woman told her is a lie. In the second, she’s asked by a former colleague’s widow to look through some old files and stumbles upon some strange threads from a dead case that might be leading her toward one of the most frightening and dangerous men she’s ever had to deal with. Finally, an elderly couple who move into her apartment complex just feel…off to Kinsey, and she can’t help but apply her almost automatic investigative skills to them.
The assured setting
One of the benefits of Grafton’s commitment to her time period is the way Millhone’s universe gets deeper with every new book. By this point, appearances by Rosie, Henry, and others are special treats for long-time readers. For newcomers, Grafton’s skill is such that it still works, because these characters have a lived-in, been-there feel that’s earned; Kinsey’s easy patter and patterns feel like relationships and behaviors she’s lived with for years, not necessarily because you’ve been reading about them for decades, but because Grafton writes them with an assurance and ease many younger writers strive for.
A real sense of dread
Grafton’s an old pro, and she knows how to build tension. As Millhone investigates a list of women’s names and addresses written in code by a former investigator for her mentors Ben Bird and Morley Shine, the man connected in different ways to each woman on the list slowly resolves into a sociopath—and possibly a serial killer. He invades Millhone’s office and her friend’s home and does creepy things like leaving everything just slightly out of place, simply to let them know he’s been there. Kinsey’s eventual one-on-one encounter with him is fraught with expertly written tension and real menace in a way only an old pro like Grafton can manage.
The neverending story
One of the best parts of living in Kinsey Millhone’s world for a while with each book is the sense of ongoing adventure. As X ends with a trio of imaginative and unexpected resolutions to its key mysteries, there are some loose threads as always, which Grafton uses to fine effect, implying that this is not some piece of standalone fiction, but rather a glimpse into a lifetime that had been 32 years in the making prior to A is for Alibi, and will likely go on for decades after the conclusion of Z is for Zero. Few writers can manage that without it being blatant sequel fodder, but Grafton has molded Kinsey Millhone into a vibrant, real person over the years, and X ends with a wonderful epilogue that satisfies and intrigues in equal measure.