The mystery short story has always been something of a boutique genre. Specialty magazines such as Ellery Queen and the Strand have kept it alive over the decades, but only just. Short fiction, to the extent that it's still vital, is mostly the domain of literary writers and readers, while mystery lovers content themselves with the novel, a roomier vessel in which to set and become ensnared in all the traps necessary for a sufficiently challenging puzzle.
In "Kinsey and Me," her alternately hilarious and pitch-dark new collection, Sue Grafton lays out the daunting challenge of writing a good mystery short story.
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"In short order, the writer has to lay out the nature of the crime and introduce two or three viable suspects," she writes in the introduction (itself a model of clarity and concision). "With a few deft strokes, the writer must further create suspense and generate a modicum of action while demonstrating how the detective organizes the subsequent inquiry and arrives at a working theory, which is then tested for accuracy. ... In the end, the resolution must satisfy the conditions set forth at the beginning."
Grafton, author of the long-running mystery novels with titles beginning with a letter of the alphabet ("A is for Alibi" was the first, "V is for Vengeance" the most recent) and featuring the wonderful private investigator Kinsey Millhone, satisfies the conditions — and the reader — again and again in "Kinsey and Me." She obviously hasn't had time to produce a vast number of short stories, but she's dabbled in the genre more than enough to master it; I say "dabbled" with tongue in cheek, as Grafton never does anything halfway, and the crackling tales here are no exception.
The collection features some Millhone-centered pieces privately published in 1991, as well as some more literary (and harrowingly personal) short fictions featuring another Grafton alter ego, Kit Blue, both of whose parents were alcoholics.
The Millhone pieces are sparkling little gems in which the more leisurely pace of the novels is compressed into a mere 20 pages or so; that Kinsey manages to introduce herself, establish the mystery and then solve it, credibly, in such a small span of time and space is nothing short of miraculous. The odd thing is that we don't feel slighted by the relative brevity of plot or even characterization; Grafton is a master of the quick, economical bit of detail, the phrase that tells (or, better, implies) everything.
The satisfaction we derive from the early stories, which comprise the bulk of the collection, relies in part on their ability to remind us what a funny writer Grafton is. In the opening story, "Between the Sheets," Kinsey finds herself in the archetypal P.I. situation of meeting a client in her office in Santa Teresa, a small California city. The client, a suburban housewife, informs Kinsey that she has found a dead man — who happens to have been her lover, whom she'd loudly threatened to kill a few hours earlier — in her young daughter's bed, shot through the heart.
"And you're sure he was dead?"
"I'm not positive," she replied uneasily. "But he was cold. And stiff. And he didn't breathe at all."
"That should cover it," I said.
This bracingly jocular tone about death disappears in the later stories featuring Kit Blue, who is, as Grafton puts it, "the 'self' I was fifty years ago." In these pieces, the author revisits the traumatic events of her early adulthood, when she was called upon to take care of her mother, who was well into the process of drinking herself to death.
"There are questions I could ask her, but I don't," she recalls of her mother in "That's Not an Easy Way to Go." "I could ask, for instance, how many jiggers of Early Times she managed to drink while she stood in the pantry pretending to open a carton of cigarettes, but she would say 'none' and then I would have the lie to accept or refute and at the moment, it doesn't seem that important. ... I have given up praying for her. I have given up even praying for myself and I've taken instead to pouring hidden bottles of bourbon down the bathroom sink and filling the bottles up with tepid tea. This is insidious, of course, because she discovers the ruse almost at once but cannot admit it or acknowledge it, cannot even defend the loss of so much expensive whiskey into the sewer systems of the world."
The Kit Blue stories are the book's dark heart, its bitter aftertaste, and may come as a grim surprise to many of the author's fans, whose impression of her is of a cheerful, indomitable woman more like the wisecracking Kinsey than the haunted Kit. Of course she is both, and she shares them with us here, bravely, in equal measure. Lucky us.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer whose work appears in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Poets & Writers Magazine and elsewhere.
"Kinsey and Me"
By Sue Grafton, Putnam, 283 pages, $27.95Copyright © 2015, CT Now