Book review: B is for Burglar by Sue Grafton

Things you could ethically do as a private detective in the mid-1980s, according to B is for Burglar:

  • Ask a landlord to let you into a missing person’s apartment, without showing a warrant or your own license
  • Copy down their social security number if you catch sight of it lying around that apartment
  • Pocket their passport that you find after going through their things, because you don’t want this missing person (whom you have no reason to suspect has committed a crime) to slip out of the country while you’re trying to find them
  • Muse about how little privacy there really is nowadays, and how easy it is to dig up all kinds of personal details on someone

And, after all that, she frets about whether she needs a court order to pick up the missing person’s lost luggage.

Other updates on observations from the first book:

  • After the long delay before indicating her gender in the first book, it became the first self-identifier on the first page of this one. “I’m female, age thirty-two, single, self-employed.”
  • She’s still having strong sexual urges toward her octogenarian landlord.
  • This book takes place only a couple weeks after the end of the last, so there was a good amount of reflection on how she feels to have killed someone and angst over whether she’s still a good person because she acted in self-defense.

Now something that really surprised me: the introduction of a gay character who wasn’t reduced to awful caricature! In a book published in 1985!

It wasn’t super-obvious at first, though I went back and listened to the whole scene over again to try to catch any obvious flags. But he’s first introduced as in his mid-thirties, described as trim, wearing a terry bathrobe as he lets Kinsey into his apartment early one morning. His name is William, but he goes by “Wim;” his voice is “light and reedy.” He puts a lot of his sugar into his coffee and admits he’s trying to gain weight, but he doesn’t like to eat anything before 2 in the afternoon, though he makes himself a protein shake for breakfast; he also observes Kinsey is looking “on the Twiggy side yourself” (there’s a few flags). His coffee mugs feature copulating bunnies and elephants (respectively, I mean, not cross-species).

Then he talks about his interview with the cops after a woman next door had been murdered: “That detective was the biggest macho asshole I’ve ever met and I didn’t appreciate his antagonistic attitude.” Not surprising, given the conflict between the gay community and cops.

It gets more obvious in their conversation about his missing neighbor, especially as he describes her sister: “She was maybe four years younger than Elaine. Black hair, cut gamin-style, exquisite skin.” The sisters had been having a blow-out fight — Kinsey asks what it was about, and he returns, “A man, of course. What else do any of us fuss about?”

Conclusion of the scene:

I let myself out, catching a glimpse of Wim’s breakfast mate, who looked like something out of Gentleman’s Quarterly: sultry eyes, a perfect jawline, collarless shirt, and an Italian cashmere sweater tossed across his shoulders with the sleeves folded into a knot in front.

In the kitchen, Wim had started to sing a version of “The Man I Love.” His singing voice sounded just like Marlene Dietrich’s.

I was so pleased by such a positive depiction (especially since Kinsey has no reaction to this scene)! And then the next time we see Wim, he’s lying dead and rotting with a bullet in his brain.

Of course he’s the only character who dies during the book’s events. (The missing person turns out to be dead too, but she died before the book began, and Kinsey never met her.)

That pissed me off so much, I just may have to finish writing the femslash porn scene that is so, so obviously beginning here — just look at it:

The locksmith was young, maybe twenty-two. She flashed me a smile that featured nice white teeth.

“Oh hi,” she said, “I’m Becky. Is this the right place? I tried up front and the old guy said I probably wanted you.”

“Yes, that’s right,” I said, “come on in.”

She was taller than I and very thin, with long bare arms and blue jeans that hung on her narrow hips. She had a carpenter’s belt slung around her waist, a hammer hanging down like a gun in a holster. Her fair hair was cut short with a boyish cowlick across the front. Freckles, blue eyes, pale lashes, no makeup, all the gawkiness of an adolescent. She had an athlete’s no-nonsense good looks and she smelled of Ivory soap.

I moved toward the bathroom. …”I want new locks on everything including my desk. Can you rekey the dead bolt?”

“Sure. I can do anything you want.”


Honestly. How freaking textbook is that scene? Even Kinsey doesn’t usually go into that much description — all the way down to smelling her. An “athlete’s no-nonsense good looks” — I’m going to swoon.

I think I understand Sue Grafton’s appeal, though. It’s not that she has superior skill in crafting mystery novels, because I don’t think they’re that exceptional; but she’s great at little character portraits, or sketches. Kinsey always meets such colorful people, and they’re described in pretty humorous ways.

His belly filled the space between his legs like a duffel bag, as cumbersome on him as a clown suit with a false front.

I’m still having trouble actually picturing that duffel-bag belly, but it’s a line that stuck in my head, even listening to it while driving. Oh, and my favorite from the first book:

She was probably sixty-five, with a finely wrinkled face, like something that had been left in the dryer too long.

Kinsey is such a weirdo, by the way. When she isn’t lusting after her octogenarian landlord, she’s eyeing seventeen-year-old punks and regretfully concluding that that’s probably pushing the May-December romance.

Another thing about her that bugs me was her reaction to an insight that I’m still not sure whether to take as farcical: Jonah, this cop she’s sort-of seeing, lets slip that his not-yet-ex left a year’s worth of frozen meals for him before she took off with the kids to Ohio.

I lowered my fork, trying to picture someone freezing up 365 dinners so she could bug out. This was the woman he’d apparently imagined mating with for life, like owls.

Really, Kinsey? You think it reflects badly on the woman that she doubts his ability to go to the grocery store once a week, find the frozen meals aisle, and purchase seven more dinners? And he’s a cop? I find that frightening. But I’m still not sure how seriously to take that story, because obviously no one’s freezer can hold 365 of those boxes. Not even if he had an extra freezer in the garage. Maybe if he had three of them…

But I liked the brutal, animalistic fight between Kinsey and Marty at the end, discovering and relishing that more primitive side to herself. It was wrapped up pretty quickly, though — not even a final conversation with Dolan or Jonah.

In conclusion: okay mystery. Needs more femslash.

2 thoughts on “Book review: B is for Burglar by Sue Grafton

  1. Ahahaha this is great. I never read any of Sue Grafton’s novels, though I shelved an awful lot of them throughout high school. Her character sketches sound delightful. But I am so not a fan of mystery as a genre. Excellent review, though!

    • Hee, thanks. They’re fun de-stress books, if you want something silly and that reads like it’s from an age ago, not just thirty years. You wouldn’t believe the contortions she has to go through to conduct business while traveling, without cell phones..

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