Your Momma’s Gone Away

S is for Silence
Sue Grafton

Editors, I think, are a lot like brand managers. At least the ones striving for commercial success. I don’t envy them that job. Soap doesn’t push back or have an ego that needs tending to.

It also has to be easier to maintain consistency with soap.

Successful mystery writers generate franchises. That practice goes all the way back to Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie and the upside for the reader is that you know what to expect when you crack the spine. With Sue Grafton what you get is another opportunity to watch Kinsey Milhone at work.

Milhone is Grafton’s first person narrator, a former flatfoot who’s now in private practice. She lives in the fictional town of Santa Teresa, California which is easily recognizable as the very real Santa Barbara.  From the reader’s perspective she’s been plying her trade for at least 19 volumes, or so the present title suggests. Most of the ones I’ve read tend to confine themselves to the actual county of the same name.

Santa Barbara, CA, the only place in California I could imagine living.

When I first picked up Grafton, I started in the middle of the alphabet, then went back to the beginning  intending to read them in order. I don’t recommend that. The monotony damn near killed me. Until this book fell into my lap it had been years since I’d last read one of her novels.

The time apart did us both good. Grafton writes procedurals. In simple terms the story details the steps the detective takes in solving the crime. Milhone is a very straightforward investigator. She asks increasingly pointed questions, assembling and reassembling the accumulated answers until something shakes loose and the pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into shape.

She’s also unlike a lot of other sleuths. She isn’t a reluctant shamus with a hiddent past like Doc Ford. She isn’t a working cop like Harry Bosch or a drummed off the force one like Matt Scudder.  She isn’t a master of ratiocination like Holmes. Nor is she a first rate screw-up who manages to solve mysteries like Stephanie Plum.

The intersection of Broadway and Main in Santa Maria, CA about 1940. It would probably have still looked much like this 10 years later.

Oddly, the word I’d use to describe her is tidy. She lives in a small apartment. Keeps a small office and she has a small retainer with an insurance company. Jogs daily and logs her investigative conversations on note cards she carries in her purse.

She’s downright pedestrian which may be a large part of her appeal to her fan base. She certainly has more day-to-day responsibilities than many another tec and I’m not certain I can remember another hero shopping for underpants, going through the mail or spending a couple of hours invoicing. But, hey, she’s running a business here.

The Bradley Hotel in Santa Maria, a location that figures in the present mystery.

One other thing distinguishes Kinsey: her tales are rooted in time. My memory is that the earlier volumes I’d read all took place in the 1980s and maybe even sequentially, almost in real time. This case finds us in 1987 and you realize how much technology has changed when you find yourself exasperated with pay phones, Xerox machines and microfilm readers.

This time a friend, the manager of a local bar and grill, asks Kinsey to help a friend of hers, Daisy Sullivan.  Daisy’s mother, Violet, went missing in 1953, when she was all of 25 and Daisy was 7.  The intervening years have weighed heavily on Daisy who desperately needs closure and hopes that her mother escaped the prison of the small town they lived in near Santa Maria in the northern part of the county.

Unlike Santa Theresa, Santa Maria is a very real place with real locations that figure in the tale. The book, in fact, bears a note that the roads have been rerouted to make the story work better so there’s no need to write and tell the author she got it wrong.

The hills outside Santa Maria, another featured locale.

Kinsey takes herself up the road (a distance that around these parts would take you halfway to Albany) and begins talking to folks. Remarkably, many of the players are still around and many remember Violet who was, shall we say, a quite emancipated and active young woman for small town America in the 1950s.

Violet isn’t a subtle creature. If you know what some people associate purple with you’ll get why Grafton chose this name for her. As if to double down, it’s the color she wears most and, I’m tempted to say of course, she’s a redhead. How do you spell trouble?

I won’t spoil the mystery. Earlier I said Grafton wrote procedurals and that’s true but this time she shakes up the formula. There are interstitial chapters that step away from Kinsey’s first person narration and tell the story of Violet’s last few days in town in the third person,  from the perspective of several characters we meet in the present.

A 1953 Chevy Bel AIr Sport Coupe. In the book, it’s two tone purple.

We never actually see any crime being perpetrated against Violet but we do see lots of bad behavior by lots of different people. It’s enough to keep you guessing until well along and even then you may feel, as I do, that you missed something in the motivation department.

There are a  few missteps that I wish a more diligent editor would have caught. Here’s just one example. Violet, at one point, in 1953, tells a lover she is not on the pill and he never thought to ask. Of course he hadn’t. The pill was first offered for sale in the US in 1960. Like the song says, it’s little things like this that matter to me.

A few gaffes aside, though. it entertained as I’d hoped it would.







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