August 7, 2010

Sue Grafton's R is for Ricochet


Sue Grafton’s childhood experiences prepared her for a career as a hard-boiled mystery novelist. Raised by dysfunctional alcoholic parents, she experienced life’s harshness firsthand. Her work as a screenwriter also helped equip her for a career as a popular mystery writer. In 1982, Grafton published A is for Alibi, the first novel in her highly popular alphabet series. Her most recent publication is U is for Undertow.

In 2008, she won two prestigious lifetime achievement awards: The Grand Master and the Cartier Diamond Dagger. Her alphabet books have also won three Shamus Awards for best private eye novel, three Anthony Awards for best hardcover mystery, and the Mystery Readers of America Award.

In my post on S is for Silence, I pointed out that Sue Grafton’s alphabet mysteries have sold over ten million copies to date. Her readership has steadily increased, and her books, from G is for Gumshoe on, have all been bestsellers. As Joyce Saricks observes, “Sue Grafton is an author librarians ignore at their peril. . . . Clever plotting, gritty stories, a sassy heroine, and strong settings set Grafton apart” (2001, 157). Grafton’s style of writing is also part of the charm; her witty, breezy, lively, succinct writing sets her novels apart.

What is truly impressive is the sustained excellence of the series. In a New York Times’s review of R is for Ricochet, Stasio writes, “Sue Grafton’s abecedarian mysteries are so consistently enjoyable you have to wonder what her secret is.” Grafton admitted in a Publishers Weekly interview:
What’s surprised me most about the series – and I wish I’d understood this upfront – is how much harder each book is to write than the one before. Originally, I thought that after five or six novels, I’d get the hang of it and breeze right on through. Since I’m not interested in writing the same book twice, my challenges and the difficulties increase every time out. (Picker 2007, 39)
Grafton continues to innovate with each novel, avoiding the pitfall of producing formula fiction.

R is for Ricochet, her 18th novel in the series, is a cleverly conceived and highly readable mystery. According to Library Journal’s list of the most borrowed books in the United States for 2005, it ranked 16th. Readers waited two years for this novel to appear and when it was published, it bumped no less a novel than The DaVinci Code from the number one spot on the New York Times bestseller list.

The story begins when Reba Lafferty is released from jail after serving time for embezzlement. Reba’s wealthy father hires Kinsey to keep his daughter from backsliding. Kinsey discovers that Reba never committed the crime for which she was imprisoned. She took the fall for her boss, Alan Beckwith. Once Kinsey investigates Beckwith’s money-laundering operation, she puts herself and Reba in grave danger.

The strength of the novel lies in the character of Kinsey Millhone. Grafton has said that readers like her because she is authentic: “I don’t idolize her; she isn’t larger than life; she’s human-sized. She makes mistakes.” Like Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum, Kinsey is resilient and witty, able to bounce back from setbacks and failed relationships. R is for Ricochet involves the search for self-identity as Kinsey discovers facets of her personality reflected in Reba’s character. “Despite the differences between us,” Kinsey says, “I responded to her out of the outrageous elements in my own nature. Watching her operate was like seeing a distorted version of myself, only larger than life and much more dangerous” (247). Reba’s example acts as a psychological impetus to Kinsey, prompting her to question her own lifestyle.

In the 1980s, Sara Paretsy and Sue Grafton created the first female hard-boiled detectives. Kinsey Millhone’s tough nature, willingness to bend rules, loner mentality, drinking and swearing, impatience with red tape, small salary and frugal wants, witty dialogue, and passion for justice can all be traced to the hard-boiled tradition. Panek argues that Grafton’s novels have inched their way to the border of this tradition because the tone of the novels is light; Kinsey rarely uses a gun; and there are few mean streets in the stories (2000, 94, 90, 96). Certainly Grafton puts her own stamp on the subgenre.

R is for Ricochet is organized around the theme of love and the concept of ricocheting. The relationships of Reba and Alan Beckwith, Kinsey and Cheney, and Henry and Mattie all explore the idea of commitment. The concept of ricocheting has both negative and positive connotations. Reba’s father is afraid his daughter will return to her former vices but both she and Kinsey reveal their skill at rebounding from bad situations.

R is for Richochet is both reflective and riveting. Sue Grafton is at the height of her powers; it is unfortunate that the alphabet has only 26 letters.

Grafton, Sue. R is for Ricochet. New York: G.P. Putnam, 2004.

Panek, LeRoy Lad. New Hard-Boiled Writers 1970s-1990s. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 2000.

Picker, Leonard. “I is for Interview.” Publishers Weekly 254, no. 39 (October 8, 2007): 39.

Saricks, Joyce G. The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction. Chicago: American Library Association, 2001.