reviews

Book review: A is for Alibi by Sue Grafton

As I wait for audiobooks I requested to come in, I grabbed A is for Alibi by Sue Grafton off the library shelf just to keep myself occupied while I drive.

I’d never read anything by her before and knew nothing about this series, beyond that it’s alphabetical and my mom used to read them, though she never raved about them.

The coolest thing about this book was how long it took me to realize the first-person narrator was a woman.

I was especially gobsmacked because this book was published in 1982. So many books even nowadays, if they’re written in first person, waste no time broadcasting the speaker’s gender, and usually by the most traditional signals: this is my outfit for the day. This is what I look like, including any insecurities about my appearance. This is how I feel about the opposite gender, with allusions to past relationships. It’s a highly typical way to load tons of info into your protagonist’s introduction.

This is the introduction to A is for Alibi:

My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed by the state of California. I’m thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids. The day before yesterday I killed someone and the fact weighs heavily on my mind. I’m a nice person and I have a lot of friends. My apartment is small but I like living in a cramped space. I’ve lived in trailers for most of my life, but lately they’ve been getting too elaborate for my taste, so now I live in one room, a “bachelorette.” I don’t have pets. I don’t have houseplants. I spend a lot of time on the road and I don’t like leaving things behind. Aside from the hazards of my profession, my life has always been ordinary, uneventful, and good. Killing someone feels odd to me and I haven’t quite sorted it through.

I hadn’t heard the name “Kinsey” before. The tone of the introduction — even read by a woman over the audiobook — struck me as the stereotypically gruff, laconic type of the male PIs, seen a thousand times over in books and films. The only possible hint at gender is the term “bachelorette,” but it wasn’t suggestive enough for me to think this was a woman speaking, in view of how utterly matter-of-fact the narration is and the loner, spartan, unsentimental life described.

It took me fourteen more pages before I caught an unmistakable gender signal, as Kinsey interacted with a Lieutenant Dolan:

“You’d get more out of me if you’d learn to flirt,” he said grudgingly.

“No I wouldn’t. You think women are a pain in the ass. If I flirted, you’d pat me on the head and make me go away.”

…”Well, I was a Brownie once for almost a week,” I said sweetly. “We had to paint a rose on a hanky for Mother’s Day and I thought it was dumb so I quit.”

My first thought, honestly, was that Dolan was being super-sarcastic with “you should learn to flirt.” Then I was jarred by the directness of “you think women are a pain in the ass,” and then finally — “sweetly?” I couldn’t remember the last time I’d ever seen that verb attached to a man’s dialogue, and then I was thunderstruck by that thought. And only then did I take the reference to being a Brownie as conclusive proof that this was a woman protagonist.

That was confirmed in the next chapter, with a description of a restaurant with cheap chairs that have peeling nylon, which (Kinsey describes) leaves small curls on your stockings, and that was the first offhand detail in the narration that colored the description in a woman’s POV.

As for the rest of the book — it was pretty well written, though I had some quibbles in a few places, including describing a twelve-year-old boy’s face and lips as “sensual” (but Kinsey also confessed to lustful thoughts about her 81-year-old landlord as he rubbed suntan lotion on his knobbly knees). I did spot the villain almost from the very start, and Kinsey pulled some real bonehead moves occasionally (in what world is it a good idea to let a known murderer know a) you’re onto them and b) the name of the person who will decide their fate?), but it was entertaining enough.

Apart from Kinsey’s androgyny (at least in tone of voice; we never did hear what she wears on a daily basis, and I like that too), what amused me the most was the godawful backward technology of the early ’80s. An answering service? Having to call them from every motel to give them that motel’s number, in case someone wants to reach you? How did anyone get anything done? Then there was also the fun of imagining every scene with the characters dressed in typical ’80s fashion and hair.

But for the gender ambiguity study alone, I’ll give Grafton five four stars.

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