N is for Noose

N Is for Noose

by Sue Grafton

published by Henry Holt and Sons

1998, 304 pages

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There's something very reassuring about reading one of Sue Grafton's alphabet mysteries. Fourteen books in -- we're on 'N' -- it's comforting to know that in an ever-changing world, some things stay the same. Grafton's heroine, Kinsey Millhone, is still funny and fallible. She's fun: still thin even while eating carloads of junk food and she gets to carry a gun. Despite these things, she's still very human. Best of all, she always gets her man: or woman, as the case may be.

In N is for Noose, Kinsey is retained by a policeman's widow to find out what was on her husband's mind in the weeks before he died. There's no mystery to the death, just a wife's curiosity about what could have been bothering him. It doesn't, to Kinsey, look like much of a case but she doesn't have anything else going on and she figures that eating is better than not.

Of course, being a Sue Grafton novel, there's more to the case than initially meets the eye, but the ride there is as much fun as the solution. As usual, Grafton builds an engaging set of believable characters, this time in a small California mountain town called Nota Lake. In N is for Noose the main players are neither affluent nor especially educated and this combination gives Grafton room to play with the culture and social mores of Small Town, U.S.A. When Kinsey is shunned by the townsfolk of Nota Lake Grafton has built a tension you can feel. It seems very real and very frightening. For instance, when she tries to gas her car up and suddenly finds no one will speak to her -- even to sell her gas -- Kinsey is shaken and we are too.

He took the other woman's credit card and disappeared into the office, returning moments later with her receipt on a tray. She signed and took her copy. The two chatted for a moment and then she pulled out. The attendant went back to the office and that was the last I saw of him. What was going on? I checked myself with care, wondering if I'd been rendered invisible in my sleep.

Grafton's language is plain and anything but poetic. In fact, in some ways it is strongly reminiscent of the classic writers of gumshoe novels of the past: there is the familiar unrelenting pace as well as the somewhat cliché images and the cultural markers that make it easy for anyone with a familiarity with North American life to find their way around. But though the language is in many ways familiarly hackneyed, Grafton has brought the genre new life and style. Stylish hackneyed clichés, then, and polished familiar markers. Lessor writers might fail dismally at such an attempt, but Grafton pulls it off consistently: writing book after book starring a familiar detective in wacky, suspenseful situations.

N Is for Noose is classic Grafton and classic Kinsey. Grafton enthusiasts will eat it up. | 1998