Nothing New Under The Sun: Sue Grafton’s W Is For Wasted
Lady mysteries! Lady mysteries! You thought we forgot, but it was actually that it took me this long to read this book because of the hate-reading. I don’t often hate-read, because for some reason I find that more of a sad time-suck than hate-watching, but I have to say that I cannot stop hate-reading the Sue Grafton Kinsey Millhone series. You know the books: A is for Alibi, H is for Homicide, S is for STOP ALREADY GODDAMMIT. As a completist, I can’t give up now. I slogged through 22 previous letters of the alphabet and there was no way I wasn’t going to tackle good old letter 23, W is for Wasted.
So the Kinsey Millhone series is your run-of-the-mill lady private eye series, but with one really weird conceit. Though the series has been going for 30 years now, the character has only aged 6 years, so the books have thus far spanned 1982-1988. According to Grafton, this is a deliberate conceit in that she decided the character would only age one year for every 2.5 books. (2.5? really? Excuse me. I have to go rifle back through past books to see if there is a birthday in every third one.) If you’ve read any mainstream murder mystery type of novel ever, you know that (1) investigations take time and (2) at some point the lead character ends up in mortal peril. So Kinsey Millhone basically has to have near-death experiences around three times per year and somehow squeeze these long-form tangled-web-we-weave murder investigations in around her oft-mentioned, but never seen, boring regular PI work. This also means that there has to be an incredibly clunky intro of the character each book so you can know how old she is this and what year it is time around:
This was October 7, 1988, and it looked like things were as bad as they were going to get. On the national front, congressional spending was a whopping $1,064.14 billion and the federal debt was topping out at $2,601.3 billion. Unemployment hovered at 5.5 percent and the price of a first-class postage stamp had jumped from twenty-two cents to twenty-five. I tend to disregard issues over which I have no control. Like it or not, the politicians don’t consult me about economic policies, budget cuts, or the gross national product, whatever that is. I might voice an opinion (if I had one), but as nearly as I can tell, nobody pays the slightest attention, so what’s the point? My only hope is to be the master of my own small universe, which is centered in a Southern California town ninety-six miles north of Los Angeles.
My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, female, age thirty-eight. I rent office space in a two-room bungalow with a kitchenette and a bathroom on a narrow side street in the heart of Santa Teresa.
OK, then! Oh, did I mention that the locale – Santa Teresa – doesn’t exist? It is a made-up smallish city in California near the ocean. Millhone goes to real places in California – Bakersfield is a locale in this book – and we always learn the exact distance of the actual place from the fictional. It also isn’t clear why the 1980s were chosen as the decade to set this in but for that the series started in 1982. The problem with the stuck-in-the-’80s trope is that the character doesn’t seem to particularly be a creature of the 1980s and Grafton doesn’t paint a rich picture of the 1980s as cultural milieu. The only way we’re aware it is the 1980s is the clunky HERE IS THE YEAR IT IS THIS YEAR NOW parts of the intro and the lead character’s utter lack of a cell phone, the internet, etc.
If you can set aside this problem (which clearly I can’t) then the books are quite enjoyable as a regular old whodunit. However, Grafton is, shall we say, less than adept at tackling larger issues, so when W is for Wasted seeks to tackle some complex feels about the incredible rise of the homeless population in California in the 1980s, it does it in a way that is as clunky as the age/year intro.
When we meet the now age-38 Millhone at the beginning of this book, she tells us how she thinks the homeless people are kinda shiftless and lazy, yo:
Their basic needs were provided for as long as they behaved. To me, the bargain seemed off-kilter. I was taught the virtues of hard work, and the trio’s complacency chafed at me. I could understand the needs of the infirm and the mentally ill. The able-bodied? Not so much. I’d heard the issue argued both for and against, but I’d never heard an equable solution. […] There was a redemption center three blocks away and the homeless supplemented their sketchy incomes by turning in glass and plastic for whatever it netted them. Of course, they squandered the money on bad booze and cheap smokes, trusting the good folks in town would see to their room and board.
At one point, Millhone needs to bribe some info out of the shiftless, so she goes to the store and buys cigarettes, asking if the brand she wants is the brand the homeless smoke. (They smoke generics, duh.)
This is so heavy-handed that anyone can figure out that yep, this case is going tin involve Kinsey Millhone starring in a very special after-school special about learning tolerance for the homeless because her case involves them. Along the way she discovers something about her personal history, which was shrouded in mystery at the start of the series but has gradually become a bigger and boring-er part of the series as time goes on.
What’s it about? Oh, right, forgot. Dead homeless guy leaves Kinsey a cool half-million-plus for no discernible reason, so she needs to go trolling through the homeless underworld and the not-homeless children of dead guy to find out why. At the same time, there’s another dead-but-not-homeless-but-still-shiftless detective who is the polar opposite of the painfully upright Millhone. He steals, he cheats, he lames out on investigations, but he turns up dead in a way that requires Kinsey to investigate even though she hates the guy. Do the disparate plot threads converge? How can you ask? Have you never read a paperback murder mystery before? Things merge into a satisfying and neat conclusion at the close and you will not have to lay awake nights thinking about character motivation or what questions remain. Save that brainspace for Breaking Bad or something.
Should you read it: Sure, if you need to fly on a plane somewhere. It is perfect as airport reading and you won’t actually care all that much if you leave it behind and don’t finish it. You should also read it if, like me, you’re overinvested in finishing the alphabet. If you are not a traveler or a completist, probably no need to start your Grafton-reading career at this late date.
Rating: On a scale from Janet Evanovich to Lisa Scottoline, this is a solid Sue Grafton.