"O" is for Outlaw

"O" is for Outlaw

by Sue Grafton

Published by Henry Holt

316 pages, 1999

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"O," Yes!

Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson


Sue Grafton is a master of the well-crafted opening, so it wasn't until the third or fourth chapter of "O" is for Outlaw, with the tension continuing to mount, that I realized I was happily locked in the grip of a powerful mystery.

This was a pleasant surprise. Many of the earlier books in Grafton's famous alphabet series (which began with "A" is for Alibi in 1983) had offered, at best, a tradeoff. An intriguing plot was barely enough to keep me reading, given the author's less-than-inspiring wordage and her decision to build her mysteries around an abrasive Southern California private eye, Kinsey Millhone.

To put it bluntly, both Grafton and Kinsey had seemed irrepressibly inelegant in the past. While reading "C" is for Corpse (1986), I had absentmindedly red-penciled stylistic changes onto an entire chapter. As for Kinsey -- just as you got close enough to look at a story through her indisputably sharp eyes, her self-centered, calloused attitude always elbowed you out of the way.

What's different in "O"? This new book shows greater depth and maturity, and a genuine sense of risk. Instead of smugly snooping around in other people's lives, this time Kinsey is taking a painful look at her own (an approach Grafton previously used with great success in 1988's"E" is for Evidence, in which Kinsey was framed and the scam involved her second ex-husband). Try as Kinsey does to shrug off her past, it's come back to haunt her again in this dark, dirty tale of alcoholism and adultery, brutality and betrayal.

* * *

"O" is for Outlaw (set in 1986 -- the alphabet series has not kept pace with real time) begins when a man who deals in the contents of abandoned storage lockers sells the skeptical Kinsey a box of her own memorabilia. It turns out to be a pile of miscellaneous junk that her ex-husband (her first ex-husband), Mickey Magruder, had packed up 15 years earlier, shortly after she left him. Among these items is an unopened letter that, had Kinsey received it, might have changed her life... and saved Magruder's career.

In the early 1970s, Mickey, a handsome cop's cop, had resigned from the Santa Teresa Police Department while under investigation for his role in an apparent murder. He and a transient named Benny Quintero had jostled each other in the parking lot of a local bar where off-duty cops hung out. Several hours later, Quintero's battered body was found by the roadside.

Threatened with criminal charges in connection with Quintero's death, Mickey asked Kinsey, then a rookie on the Santa Teresa force, to give him an alibi for his whereabouts in the early morning hours when Quintero was beaten -- even though he refused to tell her where he'd gone after leaving the bar. "He asked me to cover for him, and that's when I walked," Kinsey recalls with typical bluntness, describing the events that led up to her divorce at age 21.

Mickey ultimately escaped prosecution, even if suspicions continued to dog him. However, the 15-year-old letter that Kinsey finds in "O" turns out to contain information supporting Mickey's innocence. It might have changed Kinsey's mind about supplying his alibi -- though it probably wouldn't have affected her opinions about the course of their passionate but destructive marriage:

Unfortunately, by the age of twenty, when I met Mickey, I was already on my way back from the outer fringes of bad behavior. While Mickey was beginning to embrace his inner demons, I was already in the process of retreating from mine.

Now Kinsey wants to track down her troubled ex and set matters straight. By the time she finds him, though, Mickey has been shot. He's unconscious and under police protection in a Los Angeles hospital. Kinsey is initially eager to collaborate with L.A. police investigating the shooting, but she backs off when she realizes the detectives have pegged her as their prime suspect. She tells them that she hasn't seen or spoken to her former husband in years. Yet to her shock, the detectives produce phone records that show a 30-minute call made from Mickey's apartment to her house just a few weeks earlier.

While Mickey remains unconscious, Kinsey eludes the LAPD and embarks on an investigation of her ex's life for the last decade and a half. She unearths evidence of multiple false identities, business dealings with a thug who dresses like a motorcycle gang member, and a strange alliance with the son of an old police buddy in Santa Teresa. She also makes some disturbing discoveries about Mickey's women, current and long past.

Magruder's career had spiraled downward since the P.I. last saw him. He had lost his most recent job as a security guard and fallen behind in his rent. Yet, Kinsey discovers, just before he was shot he made a trip to Louisville, Kentucky. That city turns out to be the birthplace of Benny Quintero, the man Mickey was accused of murdering -- and also the hometown of two extremely powerful people from Santa Teresa. In Louisville, Mickey had evidently discovered something that led to the recent attempt on his life.

* * *

Author Grafton definitely takes the gloves off in this, her 15th Kinsey Millhone book. The P.I. is so deeply invested in uncovering the secrets that led to the shooting of the man she once loved -- and betrayed -- that she almost drops the snide attitude her creator has long mistaken for some sort of humor. This is not to say that "O" is in any way less hard-boiled than previous Grafton novels. Indeed, the author's trademark shocking denouement is as grisly as ever.

But while "O" is for Outlaw shows Grafton at the top of her form, I can't help wondering how her tough-as-the-guys style, so groundbreaking back in the early 1980s, will wear over the next couple of decades. Will sneering Kinsey and her famous black dress (adaptable for the court appearances, parties, dates and funerals that Kinsey treats with about equal enthusiasm) soon seem as passé and contrived as many 80s feminist conceits do today?

By setting "O" back in 1986, Grafton is able to keep her detective youthful and energetic, but she's left with a series that feels oddly dated. Consider, by contrast, author Sara Paretsky, whose sleuth V.I. Warshawski took a five-year literary hiatus before finally returning this year -- noticeably older and even more interesting -- in the critically acclaimed Hard Time. As tenacious a fighter as Kinsey Millhone is, it pains me to think that she might always be fighting old battles.

A few lines toward the end of "O" may hint that, by revisiting her first marriage, Kinsey has shaken free some demons and laid to rest some old guilt. Could it be that she's ready to grow up -- and grow older? Not many of the classic hard-boiled male detectives ever made it past middle age. It will be interesting to see if Grafton can transcend this aspect of the hard-boiled genre that she has already, so to speak, trans-gendered. | October 1999


KAREN G. ANDERSON writes regularly about crime fiction for January Magazine.

Readers interested in Grafton's pioneering role in developing the hard-boiled crime story from a woman's perspective should also enjoy the book Detective Agency: Women Rewriting the Hard-Boiled Tradition, by Priscilla L. Walton and Minina Jones (University of California Press, 1999).