Friday, October 9, 2015

The Puzzling X

Let’s just jump dead on into book number 24 in Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone Alphabet series, X.  Yes, yes.  Let’s just jump right into it.
Here’s the deal: There are three narratives (as opposed to the term “plot”–which Grafton dislikes using) happening in Kinsey’s latest adventure.  And all three read like b-narratives provided in one fluid swoop.  And get this!  Except for the prologue, Grafton doesn’t use time jaunts this time around.  That’s right.  This one is strictly from the perspective of Kinsey.  But to be clear about my excitement, the time jaunts in the last five books didn't bother me.  Just putting that out there.
Narrative Beats
Let's talk about those narratives first...
B-Narrative 1:  A divorced woman misses the lavish lifestyle she once shared with her wealthy husband.  As the split takes its financial toll, she becomes more and more unwilling to give up the furs and jewelry.  So to speak.  Even so, the divorce came from her reactionary hands, leaving her with repercussions of financial lost.  But how else was she suppose to respond, when her husband's affair involves a friend?  More importantly, how does she plan to stay afloat?  Well, stealing a painting from her husband’s basement is one.  She just needs Kinsey’s help in locating a capable thief, fresh out of prison.  Of course, this information isn’t disclosed to a blindsided Kinsey Millhone.  And when Kinsey finds out, she's hot on this sneaky woman's ass.  Nobody plays Ms. Millhone and gets away with it!  Or will this be Kinsey's match?
B-Narrative 2:  Racing in tight trajectory; an elderly couple settles next door to Kinsey and her landlord, Henry.  While the elderly woman of the duo seems capable and bouncy, her husband comes confined to a wheelchair.  This, in turn, has his wife begging both Kinsey and Henry for small-time favors with a sympathetic lean.  One day she’s asking Henry to take her to the grocery store.  The next she’s begging Kinsey to watch her husband as she slips off to the dentist. Then one day Kinsey’s investigative antenna probes upward, when she witnesses the couple dumping their trash into the bins of their neighbors.  A paper trail of scandal ensues.  And this sweet couple is maybe not so sweet.
B-Narrative 3 (Resoundingly A):  I consider this the core story.  It seemed to hold the book together as a narrative common to a Kinsey investigation.  Why?  Because it features killers and murder, of course.  It also directly follows a stream of events that took place in the previous book, W is for Wasted.  
The IRS is on the phone–but not in pursuit of Kinsey.  Instead, they are hounding the wife of Kinsey’s former investigator trainer, Pete Wolinsky.  Reeling from the IRS's demands for documents sequestered by Pete, it's Pete’s wife, Ruthie, who seeks Kinsey for help.  Pro bono and as a family friend.  Before his death, Pete left a banker’s box to his once trainee.  Once in which Kinsey discovers a false bottom.  Inside Pete secreted a package containing a Bible, rosary, birthday card, and a family portrait.  And a deeper look unveils a list of random, coded numbers listed on a slice of paper.  Soon after Kinsey’s discovery, she finds her office completely trashed.  Somebody cold and calculating wants what she's discovered.  And now it’s up to her to find him before he finds her.
And that’s what X consist of.  And, to be just a little honest, a Kinsey book I found kind of lukewarm and weak by the end of each thread. 

Weakness & Hunger
Without fail Grafton's a literary master at building conundrums, suspense and themes.  Whatever her net worth, she's built a fortune off writing crime fiction.  I'm sure, anyway.  She’s also one of those mystery writers I throw all my trust into for telling a great story.  So Grafton gracefully tackling three running narratives, with seamless transitions into each, was welcomed.  Besides, she's been doing this.  Though with the added stream of using leaps into time and spaces outside of Kinsey to do so.  However, the running narratives in those cases were always parallel to Kinsey's current investigation.  In X, they clash for all of Kinsey's attention in the now.   
So I found myself hungry throughout X's many unfolding stories.  It gave plenty of mystery and intrigue to lead and consume.  And there was little room for pages of wandering before the next cycle of the narrative loop started.  As a reader, I picked up where Kinsey/Grafton left off with each case; newly investigated information absorbed with easy comprehension toward the next clue and category it belonged in.  So the juggling of narratives wasn't my issue.  Not specifically.  Besides, I may be a touch bias considering I love Kinsey and her voice, on principle.  She's a slick-ass investigator.  Not too over-the-top and crass, not to sweet and passive.  The perfect, controlled blend.  Which always makes it easy to follow her pursuits as a reader.
Even so, while Kinsey shined ever so bright, I can’t exactly get behind the resolution of each narrative in X.  So even though the build-up and unfolding of each locked me in the wheel; ultimately, I found them a little anticlimactic.  It's almost as if the three ran out of steam by the end of the book.  Furthermore, the villains and saboteurs didn't live up to their swelling hype.  Each thread didn't deliver that final, body-thrusting punch I anticipated from their build-up.
Maybe what I’m trying to say is I found X to be too… “nice.”  Too–maybe even–vigilant.  Or per the book’s synopsis, “infinitely wise in the matter of human misbehavior.”  It's "infinitely wise" without the flash and flourish necessary to send me cooing blissfully at the moon within its final pages.  In retrospect, I could even match each narrative with similar cases from Kinsey's past that would unveil the difference. 
Getting the Rant Out of my System (Spoilers may Care)
(There are three specific, but vaguely delivered examples, I want to address.  A) I’m not a fan of blackout scenes.  Especially those consisting of a villain pumped up to be ruthless and menacing, but isn't.  If you’ve ever read I is for Innocent, then you’ll know Grafton has done better final confrontations and merciless villains.  B) It’s irritating when your invested culprits are apprehended off page.  Or the scene cuts just as they are about to find themselves caught, hauled and booked.  Sometimes I like my culprits spiting, slashing and cursing with madness while detained for their crimes.  All the way to the end.  This was one instance where I needed such to wake things up.  C) Forget the lesson of “forgiveness” in a hard-boiled novel.  Unless it has something to do with the protagonist and the secondary characters in the series.  Or the remorseful killer–which didn't exist in this hinted scenario–who just took things too far one day.  If Kinsey is going through hell to resolve a case, I'd like it to count by its end.  This whole “let’s sit at the table and think this out” deal was for the birds.  Keep it twisted and save the poo-pooing for Danielle Steele or something.  No shade to Mrs. Steele, of course.)
Underline Direction?
I feel something about X.  Something about it's direction.  Now by “direction” I don’t mean the soup of running narratives.  I mean the purpose of the book–if there is one.  I was never quite sure of my own feelings, but let me share my thoughts.  
There were moments I wondered if X was a last hurrah into the classic and captivating makings of Kinsey.  Was Grafton using X to shuffle us into the last two books in the series, with something fresh and sneaky in mind?  Was X something like the transitional book in long-standing series?  Or were the threads of X's many narratives combined, or rescued, from the cutting room floor?  Are these stories Grafton wanted but couldn’t use in previous books as her B-Narratives?
Forever Kinsey
At the end of the day, we’re marching closer to the final chapter of Kinsey Millhone.  Though it’s four years from now, all I can say is I’m going to miss the hell out of her.  Regardless of how I left X, the truth is I visited an old friend again.  Finding joy in every strike of her resolve, banter and wit.  As well as reclaiming how strikingly similar we are as it concerns our love life.

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