K is for Killer
Sue Grafton
(St. Martin's Griffin)
Evidently Ms. Grafton has made a slew of money by inventing the serial novels, A Is for Alibi, B Is for Burglar, C Is for Corpse, D Is for Deadbeat, etc. etc. ad nauseum. Alibi came out in 1982 and according to Wikipedia, the last three issued are U Is for Undertow, (2009), V Is for Vengeance (2011) and W Is for Wasted (2013).

The last of the twenty-six? No no, let us guess: X Is for Xenophobia? Xanax? Y Is for Yin-Yang? Yoga? Z Is for Zygote?

And who knows how many zillions of copies she has sold. Wikipedia tells us "Grafton's novels have been published in 28 countries and in 26 languages, including Bulgarian and Indonesian." Can you think of the complications? How the hell do you say "R Is for Ricochet" in Bulgarian or any one of the 700 dialects of Indonesia?

Any way you spell it, it's a built-in treasure-trove. How does she do it?

Now, by dint of having read Killer, or at least most of it, I know exactly how she pulls it off. It is called "detail." Fine detail. Some might call it "microscopic detail." Or "space filler."

Filled with what? You name it. How about a water treatment plant, where

    we passed a series of gauges and meters tracked the progress of the water, which was pouring through the facility with a low-level hum. The floors were concrete and the pipes, in a tangled grid across the wall, were painted pink, dark green, brown, and blue, with arrows pointing in four directions.

Shades of Joyce --- but when we read about the water system of the city of Dublin in Ulysses, we know that we've reached a point of the book (after "Nighttown") where heavy detail comes on like a liturgy, to complete and assuage all that has gone before. Here: feels like crêpe filling to me.

Detective Millhone goes to visit Clark Esselmann's estate, and what luck for Grafton! It's "a sizable estate," the better to particularize it (and us), "constructed in the French country style, meaning long and low with a steeply pitched roof. Mullioned windows formed a series of staunch yellow grids along the facade, while the tall fieldstone chimneys jutted up like black towers against the charcoal sky." I'll spare you the extensive interiors, including the "two separate cooking islands about ten feet apart" with one "topped with dark granite with its own inlaid hardwood cutting surfaces and a butler's sink."

Later on, you'll find that this fine fretwork is not limited to fancy digs. After getting bludgeoned to death, the whore Danielle has her cottage laid out for us too:

    The bathroom was small, painted white, with tiny old-fashioned black-and-white tiles on the floor. The sink was skirted in the same Laura Ashley print she'd used in the bedroom. She'd bought a matching polished-cotton shower curtain, with a valance covering the rod. The wall opposite the john was a minigallery.

Note the elegant detail. Esselmann's bathroom --- I can't remember if we ever got to that back in early Killer, but I think it would not have been called a "john." (I just checked the big house again: French doors, "black-bottomed lap pool," dog --- "a black Labrador retriever" named Max --- Esselmann himself in robe and slippers, but no bathroom to speak of in that huge spread.)

I'd be the last to accuse Grafton of padding the books, but I now know I should have gotten out of there when Grafton gives us the full monty, the tape-recorder on page 237 ("This is Mylar ribbon, coated on one side with a bonding material containing iron oxide. Signal passes through a coil in the recording head, and that causes a magnetic field to form between the poles of the magnet . . . ")

Alas, I kept on, doing my reviewerly duty, only nodding out when we reached Danielle's bathroom, the john that did me in. It's rare that I bail out before the end, especially with a writer who compares herself favorably to one of the greats, the mystery writer Ross Macdonald. Grafton's mystery town of Santa Teresa is Kinsey's stomping grounds. It's also said to be a tribute to him.

But now I know, despite all those clues, with these detective clones, it's always going to be the johns that get it in the end.

--- Pamela Wylie
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