"U Is for Undertow" (A Marian Wood Book/Putnam, 403 pages, $27.95) by Sue Grafton
Can it really be 27 years since Kinsey Millhone sifted through clues in "A Is for Alibi?"
And can Sue Grafton really be approaching the end of the alphabet?
The answers are yes, and yes, and as the end of the series looms, Grafton has never been better.
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Millhone, who is still solving crimes in the 1980s and just about to turn 38, has changed little since that first novel. She's still living alone and slightly in love with her landlord, Henry.
But this time, though, the plot is more complicated than usual, and much darker.
Millhone is working in her office when a man shows up unannounced and tells her a recent newspaper article about a 20-year-old kidnapping has unleashed a flood of memories for him.
It was his sixth birthday, Michael Sutton tells Millhone, when a 4-year-old-girl was kidnapped. In his recently restored memories, Sutton remembers being in the woods behind his house that day, and he thinks he knows where the child was buried.
Millhone is skeptical, but reluctantly agrees to devote a day to the case.
Among the first things she finds out is that Sutton has a reputation for not telling the truth. Still, there is something about his tale that rings true for her, so she pushes on.
In this novel, Grafton switches voices and points of view, leading the reader through distant events and current happenings.
"Here's the odd part. In my 10 years as a private eye, this was the first case I ever managed to resolve without crossing paths with bad guys," Millhone writes. "Except at the end, of course."
The action switches between the 1980s, and Millhone's investigation, and the 1960s. In this earlier period, we meet Deborah Unruh, an upper middle class homemaker whose son Greg has dropped out of college and taken up with Shelley, an unpleasant young woman, and her 6-year-old son. The trio has been panhandling or outright stealing to make ends meet. But now Shelley is pregnant, and they crash at the Unruhs in an old bus they park behind the house.
"What fascinates me about life is that now and then the past rises up and declares itself," Millhone writes by way of introducing her latest case. That also applies to her personal life.
As all fans know, Millhone is a loner, raised by a cantankerous aunt after her parents were killed in a car crash. Her feelings for family have been bitter and distant. Her mother was disowned for marrying her father, and Millhone didn't know any of her relatives until a few books back.
That is another situation Millhone also needs to clear up, and in "U is for Undertow," she finally does.