Review: A Is For Alibi

Sue Grafton – A Is For Alibi

I bought this book second hand – buy the paperback new for £8.99, published by Pan.

First, the official blurb: When Laurence Fife was murdered, few cared. A slick divorce attorney with a reputation for ruthlessness, Fife was also rumoured to be a slippery ladies’ man. Plenty of people in the picturesque Southern California town of Santa Teresa had reason to want him dead. Including, thought the cops, his young and beautiful wife, Nikki. With motive, access and opportunity, Nikki was their number one suspect. The jury thought so too. Eight years later and out on parole, Nikki Fife hires Kinsey Millhone to find out who really killed her husband. But the trail has gone cold and there is a chilling twist even Kinsey didn’t expect…

Many writers choose the series route, especially those with police or private detective characters. However, few have the nerve to signal how many books there will be in that series – but in the 1980s, Sue Grafton did exactly that. Sadly she died in 2017 having published Y Is For Yesterday but not completing the series. Her daughter reportedly said Grafton would never allow a ghostwriter to write in her name and “as far as we in the family are concerned, the alphabet now ends at Y”. But even without that 26th entry, what a legacy she has left her fans in this series.

Back when Grafton began her Alphabet series, female protagonists were far less numerous than they are today, and I can’t think of another introduced in such explosive style as private detective Kinsey Millhone. It’s shocking and sharp and makes the reader sit up straight and pay even closer attention.

Kinsey, based in Santa Teresa, California, takes on new client Nikki Fife, who has just been released from jail after eight years, after being convicted of murdering her husband, Lawrence, a divorce lawyer. She has protested her innocence all along and now wants Kinsey to find out who really killed him. Checking the police files via a contact, Kinsey finds the cops were also looking at Nikki for a second murder with the same MO – oleander poisoning – the victim being Libby Glass, 24. But there wasn’t enough evidence – is it because Nikki was smart, or is it because she really didn’t do it?

Each lead Kinsey chases down has a person attached to it, and care is taken with them all both in terms of shaping the people and of shaping Kinsey’s responses and her next moves. This isn’t about Kinsey as a hotshot PI, knocking down doors with gun in hand, this is a more grounded, realistic picture of the dogged work and sometimes painful dealings with people affected by a murder long after the event and even if they are not at first glance directly affected. It’s about looking for the ripples and tracing back to the moment when the water was glossy and still before the stone was thrown in.

The drip-feed of information about Kinsey is nicely done – how she works a case; that she runs not because she likes the exercise but because some day she might need to run for real; she has no interest in sight-seeing so enjoys driving long distances at night. She can play hard when she’s working a case and wants information, but can have her head turned by a man. She can grit her teeth to deal with something potentially dangerous, but she isn’t unaffected by it.

It’s a slow burn, single-focus plot, no messing. We follow Kinsey through her investigation and through her personal life and thoughts; we’re always with her. While the investigation is always present, the soul of this novel is a character study of Kinsey, setting up a series we won’t be able to resist because we are so invested in her. The denouement only emphasises this.

The intensity and sophistication of character work in this first entry explains entirely how Grafton could create such a long-running series and gather so many fans of her work over the years. You’ve probably read some, maybe all, of this series and are shouting at me for not joining you before now – but if, like me, you somehow never got round to meeting Kinsey Millhone before now, I’d definitely recommend that you do.

The author’s website has more about her novels, find it at: www.suegrafton.com

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