By Gerald Bartell
Monday, January 11, 2010; C03
U IS FOR UNDERTOW
By Sue Grafton
Marian Wood/Putnam. 403 pp. $27.95
Sue Grafton's "U Is for Undertow" arrives with a double layer of suspense. There are the absorbing details of PI Kinsey Millhone's latest case, and for fans there is the question of whether this latest installment, just five letters from Case Z, lives up to its often great predecessors in the author's alphabet series of mysteries.
Fans, relax. Grafton has delivered another winner. In this one "the past rises up and declares itself," as Kinsey observes, embarking on an investigation that uncovers powerful secrets long concealed. Not since Laura Lippman's "What the Dead Know" and Nancy Pickard's "The Virgin of Small Plains" has the rattling of skeletons been so harrowing.
On an April afternoon in 1988 (a month before Kinsey's 38th birthday), Michael Sutton, good-looking and still preppy in his mid-20s, asks Kinsey to investigate a scene he stumbled upon in 1967, when he was 6. At the time, a 4-year-old named Mary Claire Fitzhugh had just been kidnapped. Playing near a friend's house, Michael spotted two men digging a trench. Nearby lay a blanket-wrapped bundle. Now, 21 years later, a news update on the unsolved kidnapping has stirred his memory, and he insists to Kinsey that the bundle held Mary Claire's body.
Michael's conviction is gossamer, perhaps rooted in the memories of an overly imaginative child. But he can't let it go. He worries about his own safety. The men who were digging had asked for his name, and he gave it. And he wants to help Mary Claire's mother find closure, a need that hooks Kinsey on the case. Looking at a photo of the 4-year-old smiling brightly, wearing a ruffled dress and holding a stuffed bunny, Kinsey remarks, "the story made something in my chest squeeze down."
But soon she finds reasons to question Michael's veracity. He was fired from a job selling radio ads when someone discovered he'd lied on his job application about having a degree from Stanford. Worse, his sister, a reporter, tells Kinsey that Michael, nudged on by a self-aggrandizing psychologist, accused his mother, father and brother of abusing him sexually as a child. He later recanted the charges, but his parents were devastated.
If Grafton had stayed with just the kidnapping, the two diggers and Michael's story, she would have given us an entirely satisfying puzzle to solve, something like the trim installments she began producing with "A Is for Alibi." But "U Is for Undertow" runs to 403 pages, and there's no padding. In no hurry to cut to the chase, Grafton devotes the core of her book to tracing and probing her characters' motives, as Kinsey makes the familiar but disturbing discovery that a need to survive can drive innocent people to do evil.
A misguided attempt by city engineers to create a safe harbor in Kinsey's home town, Santa Teresa, illustrates this theme. Kinsey observes that, however well intentioned the project may have been, it created riptides that swept people to their deaths. "As with so much in life," she says, "good intentions often generate unexpected results." Working with this theme, Grafton periodically interrupts Kinsey's brisk narration to tell the absorbing stories of several characters living in Santa Teresa during the '60s. She describes their lives in keen, observant detail, often with a twist that makes something in the reader's own chest "squeeze down." Here, fat, prepubescent Jon Corso tries to eat a cold grilled-cheese sandwich after his mother has died: "Because of his braces, he couldn't bite down on a sandwich without getting bread sludge stuck in the wires, so he broke off bites one at a time, thinking of her."
These stories from the past inevitably link to one another and then, finally, to the kidnapping. With each connection, Grafton affords the reader the palpable satisfaction of a safecracker listening to tumblers fall into place. Indeed, the intertwining narratives pull at a reader so strongly that they nearly turn the case of Michael Sutton into a McGuffin. But not entirely. Grafton comes up with clues to savor and puzzle over -- marked bills, the tags on a dead wolf dog and, in a subplot, some old family letters. In a touching epilogue that ends "U Is for Undertow," the missives send Kinsey on her own journey into the past to learn that for her, at least, the tides of her early days were more placid than she remembered.
Bartell is an arts and travel writer living in Manhattan.