By Sue Grafton

Putnam. 374 pp. $26.95

"SIs for Silence," the 19th novel in Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone series, is one of her best and also one in which she makes an interesting departure. Grafton tells her story in two ways. The first is the classic private-eye format of the previous novels: Kinsey's first-person account of her search for a woman named Violet Sullivan who vanished 34 years earlier, wherein she reports to us as she questions Violet's husband, lovers and friends about long-ago events. Grafton's innovation is to alternate this account with chapters written in the third person in which she shows Violet interacting with those people, and them interacting with each other, in the days leading up to her disappearance.

Although it's sometimes confusing for the reader to go back and forth both in time and in narrative voice, the third-person chapters add a new dimension to Grafton's writing. The so-called omniscient narrator permits her to move among her characters, explore their thoughts and give them a depth that is impossible in a first-person narration. These flashbacks take place in the summer of 1953, when Grafton herself was 13, and she offers a poignant look at two teenage girls as they confront the challenges of sex and of unloving parents. She also vividly portrays the troubled Violet as she deals with her abusive husband and her jealous lovers before she vanishes. These chapters are a hard-edged tour de force in which Grafton demonstrates, if anyone doubted it, that she could write a first-rate novel without Kinsey Millhone if she had a mind to.

Grafton has been a fixture on the bestseller lists since early in her series, which began with "A Is for Alibi" in 1982, but I'm not sure everyone realizes just how good she is. Having recently read several of her Millhone novels, at a time when I was reading Raymond Chandler, John D. MacDonald, Ross Macdonald and other of our most admired crime writers, I've come to believe that she is not only the most talented woman writing crime fiction today but also that, regardless of gender, her Millhone books are among the five or six best series any American has ever written.

If Grafton's talents have not been fully appreciated, it may be because male reviewers can have problems with the Millhone books. The first thing that struck me about them was -- dare I say it? -- how girly they can be. Kinsey agonizes a lot over whether her love of junk food is expanding her posterior. She often tells me more than I want to know about hairstyles, cosmetics, clothing and kitchens. And she is surely the only private eye ever to declare that, after a hard day's crime-fighting, the best way to relax is not by lifting a bottle of rotgut but by folding the laundry and scrubbing the toilet.

To appreciate Grafton, we must accept that her series is written not only by a woman and about a woman but also for women. We guys can tune in if we choose, but we're not Grafton's core constituency. Having grasped that, even the most hard-bitten reader, if he's not brain-dead, should come to appreciate Grafton's storytelling skills, her consummate professionalism and the brilliance with which she has, in book after book, built Kinsey Millhone into the most beloved woman in American popular fiction.

Grafton was 40 when she began the first Millhone novel. She had behind her two failed marriages, a long child custody battle and a so-so career as a screenwriter that left her hating Hollywood and desperate to write novels that would win her independence. She wanted to write in the Hammett-Chandler-MacDonald private-eye tradition but with a female hero. The movie business had taught her the importance of sympathetic characters, and she proceeded to mold Kinsey Millhone into a woman whom millions of other women could think of as a friend.

The classic private eyes were taciturn fellows. We know they liked booze and were wary of dames but not much else about them. Kinsey's life, by contrast, is literally an open book. We know that at 5 she was trapped for hours in the car crash that killed her parents. We know she was raised by her tough-minded Aunt Gin and for a time lived in a trailer. We know she was a cop before she became a private investigator, she's twice divorced, she doesn't care much about clothes, and she drives an old VW. We know about her ex-husbands and lovers and her general disdain for the male sex. The sheer mass of detail we have about Kinsey is staggering. Sherlockians still debate where Holmes went to university, but we know the name of the bully who picked on Kinsey in the third grade. And -- oh, yes -- we also know that when the occasion demands, she'll pull out her trusty H&K P7 and shoot some creep dead.

The male character that Kinsey most reminds me of is John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee. Both McGee and Millhone are wonderful fantasies -- one directed at men, the other at women -- of heroes who live lives of adventure, sexual freedom and professional competence. They are probably the two most popular characters in American crime fiction -- the novels are fine, but ultimately it is the characters we care about.

I doubt that Grafton will continue with the double-barreled narrative of "S Is for Silence." She could return to Kinsey's first-person accounts, or she could bite the bullet and write her next book entirely in the third person, which I would love to see. But the important thing is that, at an age when she would be justified in slowing down, she says she's determined to carry her "alphabet series" all the way to Z. To which even the most jaded reviewer can only say: You go, girl.