Postal Reading group
April 2019
Notes on the book A is for Alibi by Sue Grafton

‘A’ is for Alibi, is the first of Sue Grafton’s alphabet of crime novels. The series stars the private detective Kinsey Millhone, who has developed into one of America’s most popular private investigators. The basic story of this novel is that Nikki Fife, who was wrongly imprisoned for murdering her husband, hires Kinsey to find the real killer and clear her name.

As such this makes a perfectly adequate plot, for an average detective novel. I have read a reasonable number of detective novels, and nornally enjoy the genre, but despite this, I found Sue Grafton’s present offering to be rather uninspiring. Yes, it was a quick read, helped by being a short book, and no, I didn’t dislike the book. But, despite this, the plot seemed too simple to make a plausable story. Although the reader has some idea that it won’t be that simple, Kinsey continues to believe that it will until quite late in the book. The final twist, when it comes, is quite sudden, so even though you anticipate that something will happen, its impossible to see the investigation developing and try to predict what will happen.

Although the mystery could be used to good effect, I don’t think that its worked very well here. This may be because the story develops only very slowly such that the murder comes nearly half way through. Similarly, most of that first half is spent re-interviewing anyone who had a relationship with Laurence. Unfortunately the list is very long, so that by the end I found it difficult to keep track of these people, and frequently needed to look back to remind myself who they were, and when they’d been having an affair with Laurence.

Of course, in a case which is more than eight years old, re-interviewing people is all a private detective can do. They don’t have access to the original evidence, or forensic tests (although Kinsey does try to beg a few favours from the local police force). Perhaps, therefore, this isn’t the best case to show off what your detective can do, but even so, Kinsey doesn’t seem to be a good investigator, and most of her work seems to be a series of lucky guesses. Most of the interviews are fairly mundame and reveal very little apart from the fact that Laurence was a really unpopular man! Ultimately we are deprived of hearing from Sharon Napier, the one interview which could have been interesting.

One theme seems to persist throughout the book: “Never marry a divorce lawyer”. While this is doubtless very good advice, it doesn’t help to create a good story. No only is there no shortage of motive for Laurence’s murder, but at the same time none of the characters seem particularly likeable. Charlie seems especially creepy, and it seems incredible that Kinsey should want to flirt with him, never mind the fact that she hadn’t ruled him out as a suspect. Nikki seems as unapproachable as Kinsey, while the author has tried to make Arlette (the overweight motel owner) as unpleasant as possible.

Equally remarkable is the amount of seemingly unnecessary description in the book. In general this can be important as helps to provide interest, or even useful clues to the plot. Unfortunately, in this case there’s a lot of information about relatively minor aspects, such as the motel rooms Kinsey stays in, yet I’d be hard pushed to recall as much about the actual crime scenes. Other unusual details include the author’s apparent obsession with overweight people, the detailed route descriptions of Kinsey’s runs, and the number of glasses of wine they consume. Many detectives in fiction seem to have an alcohol problem, but the author makes little attempt to explore this, instead it seems to be no more than a way for Kinsey to pass the time.

In short, this is an unbojectionable, but unexceptional private detective story. Perhaps the future ones will improve as the author develops her character, or as Kinsey ‘learns’ her trade, but in the current book, much is adequate, nothing stands out, and some of the details are unusual, or even destracting. Finally, as an alibi is unimportant in a crime like this one, perhaps the case should have been “M for motive”, of which there was no shortage.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler