Thursday, January 6, 2011

U is for Undertow

My earliest memory is of catching my fingers in a folding chair.  We were down the shore, and my mom said I had to fold up my little green beach chair before I had ice cream.  I remember she was wearing a green-and-white gingham sundress (more of a mu-mu, really), and her hair was still long and clasped in a barrette at the nape of her neck.  My grandparents were there, and Dick and Frances (my grandmother's siblings).  My mom was holding my favorite red bowl - the one I had to have my Cheerios in every morning - and I screamed.  She filled the bowl with ice as Dick extracted my fingers from the chair, and I ate my ice cream from another bowl while chilling my sore hand.  When I was about 20, I told my mom what I remembered and she was amazed that I got every detail right, except my age.  I thought I was 3 1/2 at the time - I was actually 18 months old.

U is for Undertow turns on the 21-year-old memory of a small child.  Michael Sutton walked into Kinsey Milhone's office with a memory of seeing two men bury something a day or so after five-year-old Mary Claire Fitzhugh was kidnapped and presumably murdered.  His memory is so clear, and the story is so believable that the police dig up the spot - and find the remains of a dog.  He was close, though, right?  He did see a burial...except it turns out that his faulty (or false) memory has been an issue in the past and upon investigation, his story actually can't be true.  There are too many false ends, though, and Kinsey also feels embarrassed that she believed Sutton's story.  So she keeps digging, carefully, brushing away bits of inaccurate and irrelevant information like an archaeologist brushing dirt from a half-buried artifact with a paintbrush, until she finds out what happened in July 1967.

Sue Grafton gives us an advantage over Kinsey.  She sets a few chapters in the five years leading up to Mary Claire's kidnapping, so we have a pretty good idea 'whodunit' - or do we?  I've been reading mysteries for 30 years (longer if you include Encyclopedia Brown), so I'm rarely fooled.  Grafton fooled me three or four times in the first half of U is for Undertow, and I solved the mystery for good about the same time Kinsey did.  

It's fitting that memory is the theme of U is for Undertow.  The once contemporary series is slipping into the historical category, and as I read, I remembered life before the internet or ESPN in every bar.  Kinsey's personal memories come into question as well.  Ever since her mother's family established contact with her in J is for Judgment, Kinsey has assumed that her wealthy grandmother's scorn for her daughter's elopement meant that she didn't want to know her granddaughter.  A cashe of old letters and some long-forgotten photos cast doubts on this assumption, and on Kinsey's perception of the aunt who raised her.  Kinsey's personal story plays against the backdrop of her friendship with her 88-year-old landlord Henry, who I am convinced is the true love of her life.  Grafton probably has the last chapter of Z is for Z(ero? Zip? Zoo?) ready for the final edit, and I think - hope, really - it has Kinsey and Henry strolling into the sunset.


  1. Can you recall how old Kinsey is in this novel? I think that they're still in the 80s?

  2. It's set in early 1989 and Kinsey was born on 5/5/50 so she's nearly 39.