Monday, May 11, 2009

T is for Tresspass

Series authors have a problem.  Most novelists release books about a year apart, so how do you deal with aging your characters?  Many authors slow the clock, allowing their characters to age at half or less the normal speed and changing cultural touchstones as the series wears on.  Marcia Mueller did this with her Sharon McCone mysteries - the 60s radical who was 28 at her 1977 debut stopped talking about the 60s  as time wore on and eventually turned 40 in 1999.  Others, like Faye Kellerman, start with relatively young characters and stagger the spacing of their books so if there are only a few months between volumes, the next book will take place two or three years later.   Then there's Janet Evanovich, who has decided that Stephanie Plum will be 32 forever, and forever accompanied by her juvenile-delinquent grandmother, and the authors of historical mysteries who either by luck or design don't have to worry about how quickly their characters age.

I don't know when or why Sue Grafton decided to deal with aging Kinsey Milhone by setting her novels further and further in the past, but it's an ingenious device.  Kinsey has only aged 5 1/2 years in the 25 she's been on the scene, but the world has slowed down with her.  Kinsey's new car is a 1970 Mustang which is merely used and not classic, she has no cell phone, no one suggests that Rosie's Bar hook up cable, and she actually has to get government documents in person instead of clicking on a link and printing it herself.  I've felt rather nostalgic while reading the last few Milhone novels.  So far, they've spanned my teens and carried me from 8th grade to sophomore year of college and I enjoy seeing how much of daily life which we take for granted barely existed just 20 years ago.

While I normally notice the historical aspect of Grafton's books, they stood out in T is for Tresspass, perhaps because the topics are so current, identity theft and the problem of caring for the elderly and alone.  Grafton shifts the narration between Kinsey and a woman who has stolen the identity of a nurse named Solana Rojas and has been hired as a home health aid for Kinsey's neighbor.  

Solana looks good on paper, because the real Solana (referred to as the Other) is highly qualified and because the criminal is highly skilled at ingratiating herself, and because in some ways she's picked the perfect victim.  Gus Vronsky is the local crank, an elderly man whose hobby is yelling at teenagers for practicing skateboard tricks.  Kinesy's landlord Henry Pitts maintains a casual friendship with Gus but few others in the neighborhood care to talk to him and his only relative is a great-grand niece who lives across the country in Manhattan.   No one seems to notice that Solana is gradually cutting Gus off from society, first cancelling the Meals on Wheels delivery, then telling his few visitors that Gus 'just isn't up to company' or 'just started a nap.'  Once she has control over Gus, she moves in with her disturbed and mentally disabled son and begins to steal Gus's property while physically mistreating him and frightening him into believing that she is protecting him from being locked in a nursing home.  

Solana's plot fails through a series of coincidences - a chance encounter with the granddaughter of a woman she'd previously 'cared' for, seeing Kinsey's car where she doesn't expect it, and the actions of Henry's potential ladyfriend, a successful 70-something real estate agent.  It falls by coincidence, and yet it doesn't feel like Grafton cheated.  It may be a bit too coincidental that her prior charge's granddaughter sees her in a department store as she's planning her escape but not beyond belief, and Grafton plants the seeds of the other 'random' events while Kinsey goes about her professional life investigating insurance claims and acting as a process server. 

What doesn't quite work is the ending, or rather the last two of three endings.  Kinsey (with help) rescues Gus, but the fate of Solana and her son are a bit more gruesome than I expected and verge on cartoonish.  Still, it's one of the better entries in what has been an enjoyable series.  Grafton only has six letters left in the alphabet, so somewhere around 2015 we'll see the series end with Z as Kinsey faces the year - 1990 - in which I first met her.

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