Sunday, March 19, 2006

The Book Report: A Is For Alibi

Written by Sue Grafton
First Publishing: 1982

As an avid reader I am always intrigued by what books capture the country's attention. Because let's face it, if you polled a hundred random people right now, I bet less than half would admit to even reading one book a year, and maybe even one book every five years. I've met plenty of people my age (going on 30) that besides required reading in school have never actually read a book on their own. And that's fine; I'm not here to explain the importance of being well read. I'm sure the few people who will read this review actually like to read books, so my stabs at teaching the value of a good book would be wasted. But with that in mind when a book grabs the nation's attention it just fascinates the hell out of me. And I don't want to say that America is ignorant when it comes to deciding what is a good book, but I will say that America has very generic taste.

There have been popular books in the past that have been well deserved ("The Stand," "Harry Potter," "The Firm," etc.) But there has been plenty of trite bullshit thrown in the mix as well ("Davinci Code," "Bridges of Madison County," "Flowers in the Attic"). The fact that Danielle Steele, John Grisham (The Firm, notwithstanding), Dan Brown, V.C. Andrews, and John Irving are household names, and names like Tim Lebbon, Laura Lippman, and Jack Ketchum are not is simply put, astonishing to me. Hell, there are a ton of people out there that have no idea who Kurt Vonnegut is; shame, shame, shame people. I'm not an elitist, and I realize that this is my own opinion, and now I will actually get to the review of "A Is For Alibi," a book that set the mystery lover's heart on fire back in 1982, and as since become the most successful selling mystery series over the past twenty years (going on twenty-five).

I've avoided Sue Grafton up to this point. I just read it last week on my plane ride out to Hawaii (hence my abscence from the site). I've never really felt either way about Grafton and the aptly titled "Alphabet Mysteries," I've just never picked one up to read. My sister-in-law is a huge fan, and finally talked me into getting myself familiar with Grafton's literary prowess. And so, to be the always pleasing brother-in-law, I gave in. I picked up the first book in the series thinking I might as well start at the beginning (She just recently released the "S" edition).

And after reading it, did I like it? Not really. Did I hate it? No. It's about as blah as a book can get. And that's okay, I guess. I don't regret reading it, but I sure as hell wasn't dying to go pick up the next one immediately. But what I don't understand is that this book started a craze, many, many fanclubs, and everyone can't wait to read the next one. I should have titled my review "I For I Don't Get It."

Look at a description of the plot. The series star is a private investigator named Kinsey Millhone, and in the first outing she gets drawn into a case involving a recently paroled murderer who says she didn't kill her husband and was wrongfully convicted. She wants Kinsey to find out who really did it, since the police have obviously closed the case, and she wants her name cleared for the record and the actual murderer put behind bars. Once Kinsey gets involved she finds out about another similar murder that was committed at the same time, and the few possible suspects and witnesses she drags up start turning up dead before she can get any info out of them.

Fine and dandy; you could go many directions with a set-up like this. However, Grafton takes the most obvious twists and turns. The idenity of the killer is obvious the moment you meet the character; in fact it was so obvious I couldn't believe I was right when the story wrapped up. Most mystery authors at least try to throw a red herring in the mix, but not Grafton, she just points you to the killer immediately and makes you feel like a chump for assuming it was someone else. Maybe one could take that for originality, but I just felt annoyed for reading the next two hundred pages.

Take the main character. Maybe people just love Kinsey Millhone. I could see ladies really digging this to a point, and maybe I'm not the audience for this kind of book. But I've known plenty of guys that really like this series too. And frankly, Millhone is not that interesting to me. There are plenty of good female leads in mystery novels nowadays, Laura Lippman's Tess Monaghan quickly comes to mind, but Millhone is not one of them. There's just not a lot too her; she's a private investigator that likes to run. That's what I got out of her character in this book. Maybe she evolves as the series goes on into something more, but that's the intro we get for her.

And as far as her being a private investigator, she's not a very good one. She practically stumbles accidentally on to the identity of the killer who as the reader you will know a hundred pages in as I stated earlier. The clues she comes up with really make no sense, and kind of come out of the blue. Grafton relies a lot on Deus Ex Machina to help our heroine out, and especially in mysteries that's just flat out lazy. As a lover of mysteries, part of the attraction is seeing the wit of the detective. Sure they can have faults and get lucky on occassion, but we like to read about how they deduce everything. We don't get that here.

So, here we have yet another of a multitude of books that I will never understand why people love them so much. Maybe the series does get better, but this had to excite enough people for there to be more, and it didn't excite me one bit. Maybe I shouldn't be bitching. My theory has always been that if you're reading anything, all power to you; it's a wonderful hobby that so few people in this country take a part in anymore. As much as I love film, a great book is oh so much more rewarding. But I read the damn thing; lied to my sister-in-law a little so I don't have to read another one, and I'm still alive, so things could be worse. And I have to pay a tribute to Sue Grafton. I don't know how you've suckered so many people into thinking you're one of our finest writers, but you've done it. Cheers.


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