Monday, October 13, 2014


Robert Frost said something to the effect that writing poetry without rhyme or meter was like playing tennis with the net down. I think the same could be said about “genre” writing in general and detective fiction in particular. In C IS FOR CORPSE, by Sue Grafton, the net stays up, but most of the volleys don’t manage to clear it.

The “net,” or the rules of detective fiction, while it may restrict in some ways, is there because it gives us the chance to create something truly compelling. Still, if all you do is follow the rules, you won’t say anything new or original or vital enough to hold anyone’s attention. All you would have done then is to repeat a witty or funny or moving thing someone else said, which of course is no longer as witty or funny or moving just by virtue of its being said the second (or third) time around. Grafton’s novel is certainly not novel, but is more like a joke that has been told so many times it is no longer funny.

I often think of writing as a long conversation between not only writers and their readers, but between the works the writers create. The urban hardboiled and noir schools of the thirties and forties can be seen as a reply to the kind of polite, upper class mysteries of writers like Agatha Christie, where crimes are committed by members of the gentry and solved by the impressive cerebrations of a genteel detective. When Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett wrote their Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade mysteries, they were consciously playing with the genre as it then existed, making a snarky, even periodic, reply to writers like Agatha Christie, by creating not armchair detective types who solved crimes as if they were puzzles, but tough guy detectives who found out what was what by diving into a cesspool of crime and coming up with a culprit in their teeth.

So does Sue Grafton’s private eye character Kinsey Milhone have anything original so say when she joins this long literary conversation about the nature of crime and its detection when she comes upon the scene in the 1980’s? At least in C IS FOR CORPSE, the third in the series, and the only one I think I am going to read, I would say no. Unlike, let’s say, Bruce Springsteen’s version of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town,” which is a variation on a theme that becomes something worthwhile in and of itself, something that is as much Bruce as it is Christmas-time treacle, Kinsey is a tired distaff retread of Philip Marlowe in THE BIG SLEEP.

C IS FOR CORPSE could have said a lot about crime and women and the zeitgeist of the 80’s, could have created an echo chamber of reference, of call and response, with the 50’s version of the male detective and the aforementioned zeitgeist/cesspool that Spade and Marlowe go swimming in, but it doesn’t. Grafton seems to create a character and a story from a formula she got in a writing class. She knows a lot about the rules of writing, but produces something that is not vital or arresting or fresh.

Imitation can be a sincere form of flattery, I suppose, but imitating too closely only shows that you can ape what someone else can do, and the copy is almost never as good as the original. Grafton sets her story in Santa Teresa, ninety miles north of LA. Unlike in THE BIG SLEEP, Grafton does not make the locale a kind of character in the story, a menacing entity that either reflects the miasma of casual venality and viciousness of LA, or is somehow a contributor to the corruption of the city of angels.

In Grafton’s Santa Teresa, the weather just gets hot sometimes, and then it cools down, and it rains or it doesn’t, and there is no menace implicit in her description of it. The landscape too is just landscape, and the setting becomes not a metaphor but an exercise in locating the action somewhere, anywhere. If that is all it is going to be, I would have preferred Grafton not wasting her time on those descriptions at all.

And the character of Milhone herself is a pretty tepid one. We don’t find out anything too interesting—we know that she doesn’t like working out but does it anyway, that she has a poor diet, and feels virtuous when eating health food even though she would prefer chocolate or ice cream. We got a hint of her motivation for what she does when she tells us she has forever been scarred by the accidental death of her parents, and can’t abide death that occurs on purpose. And that she has always been curious, and used to look through the stuff of her Maiden Aunt’s friends when they weren’t looking. Wow, revelatory stuff.

Unlike Marlowe and Spade’s relationships with women, there is no real heat in her relationship with any man, or if there is, the character, and Grafton, are unable to portray it. She has no great passions, and the one scene where she struggles with her desire is tepid and trite: “He was exuding pheromones like a musky aftershave” and “the only thing worse than a man just out of marriage is a man still in one” and finally, “by the time we finished eating, we’d recovered our professional composure and conducted most of our remaining conversation like adults instead of sex-starved kids.” Wow, now that is some hot stuff. When she passes up the opportunity to be with him, I didn’t really care one way of the other.

Ok, so what about Grafton/Milhone’s use of language? Not too impressive. Instead of similes like Chandler’s (he was as light as a thumb on a scale, the barrel of the luger looked as wide as the entrance to the 45th street tunnel) we get “it was one of those extraordinary moments when automatic recall clicks in and a piece of information pops up like a flash card” and “her breasts looked like two five-pound flour sacks from which some of the contents had spilled.” And these were the only two in the book that I underlined, because they were bad. There weren’t any I thought particularly good, and all the rest were so expected, so hardboiled de rigueur and doctrinaire, that I read right past them like a NYC cabbie rushing past a black man who needs a taxi on a dark and rainy night.

How about plot? Well, the whole thing starts when Kinsey encounters a rich young man who was grievously injured in a car crash and thinks someone is out to kill him, but he can’t remember who. Amnesia, ok, standard device. His family is rich, and Kinsey visits the manse to meet the mother (and the suspects, the cast of characters), but it is not like Marlowe visiting the Sternwoods. Glen Callahan is not the knight or the knave that General Sternwood is, not the witch or angel that would have intrigued me, but is just a very pretty woman with good taste whose most impressive line is “money can’t buy life, but it can buy you anything else you want” (wow). Although there is sex to be found in both plots, the sex in Corpse is hardly shocking, hardly a symbol of something being rotten in the State of Santa Teresa.

One place where Grafton does pretty well, I thought, is in the last scene, where Kinsey is chased through an empty mortuary by a doctor carrying her death in a syringe. The way the doctor sings “Someone to Watch over Me” while he pursues her is blackly funny.

Finally, Grafton tries to establish one character that can be part of Milhone’s life in one installment to the next, her beloved landlord Henry Pitts. He’s a sweet old 90 year old, and she feels both protected by, and protective of, him. So far so good, I guess, but the subplot where he is almost conned by a senior woman con-artist seems like it was grafted (Grafton-ed) onto the plot by a rookie surgeon.

Oh, and one other thing Kinsey tells us about herself is she doesn’t know how to talk to the rich, or how to make small talk at all. Perhaps not a terrible quality in a character, this inability to communicate, but not such a good one in an author.

© 2014 Mike Welch


  1. Mike, I think your comments on crime writers show a high understanding of and familiarity with many of the classic of American fiction in the genre. Usually, I go along with your ideas, but in this post I am not so supportive. You see, this writer did a noble job in paving the way for many, many female writers of the genre, making it possible for the titans who run the publishing world to buy and promote many women writers of mystery/crime fiction, where the road had been almost impossible for them before Sue Grafton. This has been a beacon to thousands of women writers for many years! No, I myself do not think the novels of Kinsey are the best I've ever read... I've read most of them and though I have never been an overtly ardent women's libber... My own background was in different geographic and intellectual arenas ... I am a female writer who has fought many battles on the front simply because I was a woman writing on so-called male topics! So, I have the highest admiration for Ms. Grafton and what she has been able to accomplish in a dog-eat-dog world! I rarely go out on a limb of criticism of a fellow blogger, especially since we we are on the same team - and loyalty to one's teammates is tops in my book of ethics!!!!!!!!!!!! But I felt it necessary to express my reactions today! Thelma Straw in harder-than-nails-New York City publishing environment!!!

  2. I'd like very much to chime in here in support of what Thelma Straw has written. I am stunned, actually, that there is anyone in the mystery world who does not recognize Ms. Grafton as the fine author, leader and class act that she is. And, I do believe if you ask some of the biggest names in the business, you'll find that they agree.

  3. P.S. - I'm guessing, just guessing, of course, that Ms. Grafton has a "fairly" large fan base. Let's see, what letter is she up to now? And still being published. Imagine that.
    SOMEBODY out there likes/loves her work. Other than me, I mean.

  4. De gustibus. We all look for different things in our reading matter. (Can you imagine? there are actually people who don't like MY work. No accounting for it.)

  5. Kate, the fact that this person doesn't like Sue Grafton's work is SO beside the point. THIS, however, I find a little surprising in a crime fiction blog - "Oh, and one other thing Kinsey tells us about herself is she doesn’t know how to talk to the rich, or how to make small talk at all. Perhaps not a terrible quality in a character, this inability to communicate, but not such a good one in an author."