U is for Undertow

December 9, 2010 - U is for Undertow (Sue Grafton). The 21st book in the author's Kinsey Millhone series forces our intrepid PI to separate fact from fantasy when a young man claims he saw two people burying the body of a kidnapped girl – 21 years ago.

The action takes place over the course of about two weeks in April 1988. It's early in the month when Michael Sutton comes knocking on Kinsey's door. Sutton tells her that a recent newspaper article about kidnappings spurred a memory from July 1967, when a young girl named Mary Claire Fitzhugh was kidnapped from a well-to-do neighborhood and presumably killed. Sutton says he thinks he saw two men burying Mary Claire's body in that neighborhood on what was his sixth birthday. Sutton is, to say the least, fuzzy on the details, but Kinsey feels that his story has a ring of truth about it. She agrees to put at least one day of work into the case.

Grafton mixes chapters concerning Kinsey's investigative efforts with chapters set in the period from 1963 to 1967. In these flashback chapters, we meet the key players in the case and see them as they were at and around the time of the kidnapping. The technique allows Grafton to create what seems to be an unusually high number of unique, fully-drawn characters. You may not like all of them, but you're invested in them, which is key since many of them cross paths with Kinsey during her investigation.

The other effect of shifting between past and present is that the reader gets an idea very early on – much earlier than Kinsey – of who the bad guys are. This book really can't be called a "whodunit" because we pretty much know who did it within the first quarter of the book. The suspense comes from watching Grafton slowly reveal characters and motive and from watching Kinsey put the pieces together.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading U is for Undertow. If I have one criticism, it's that the ending felt rather forced. From the outset, the book had rather a meandering feel to it, moving back and forth between time frames, no one in much of a rush. And, why should they be in a rush? There's really no urgency to solve a 21-year-old kidnapping case. But, in the last few chapters, the guilty parties perceive the walls closing in and it's their actions that rapidly lead to their rather sudden downfall.