Book review: C is for Corpse by Sue Grafton

This one had a sharp, promising start:

I met Bobby Callahan on Monday of that week. By Thursday, he was dead. He was convinced someone was trying to kill him and it turned out to be true, but none of us figured it out in time to save him. I’ve never worked for a dead man before and I hope I won’t have to do it again. This report is for him, for whatever it’s worth.

The hook deepens as you learn that Bobby is just 23 and, when Kinsey meets him, he’s struggling to rehabilitate himself physically and mentally from a car crash that almost killed him and did leave him disfigured and brain damaged. She shows us how hard he’s fighting to overcome what happened to him, how self-conscious and frustrated he gets, and she listens to his mother talk about how she almost went out of her mind when she thought he was dying and there was nothing she could do to stop it. Not even with her piles and piles of money:

“I thought he was dead. I thought they’d come to tell me he’d died. I felt a spurt of ice, like I’d been stabbed. It started in my heart and spread through my body ’til my teeth chattered. He was at St. Terry’s by then. All we knew at that point was he was still alive, but barely. When we got to the hospital, the doctor didn’t give us any hope at all. None. They told us there were extensive injuries. Brain damage and so many broken bones. They said he’d never recover, that he’d be a vegetable if he survived. I was dying. I died because Bobby was dying and it went on for days. I never left his side. I was crazy, screaming at everyone, nurses, doctors…”

Her gaze flattened and she lifted an index finger, like a teacher who wants to make a point very clear. “I’ll tell you what I learned,” she said carefully. “I understood I couldn’t buy Bobby’s life. Money can’t buy life, but it can buy anything else you want. I’d never used money that way, which seems odd to me now. My parents had money. My parents’ parents had money. I’ve always understood the power of money, but I’d never wielded it with quite such effect. He had the best of everything. The best! Nothing was spared.

And he pulled out of it. Having endured so much, I’d hate to think someone did it deliberately. To all intents and purposes, Bobby’s life is ruined. He’ll be all right and we’ll find a way for him to live productively, but only because we’re in a position to make that happen. The losses are incalculable. It’s miraculous he’s come this far.”

All that, and you know she’s about to lose him for real in just a couple days.  Oof. And when Kinsey talks to her some days after the funeral:

“…I keep thinking there’s something more, that it can’t be over yet. Do you know what I mean?”

“No. Not quite.”

She stared at the floor, apparently consulting her inner voices. “Part of it is a feeling of betrayal, I think. I was brave and I did everything I was supposed to. I was a trouper and now I want the payoff. But the only reward that interests me is having Bobby back. So I wait.”

Those were unsettling insights alongside the stereotypical portrayal of the mega-mega-rich.

Despite the strong start, this ended as one of those mysteries where the villain is revealed and you’re like “wait, who? Where did they come from?” Then there was a climactic showdown in an abandoned hospital, using some tropes that may have been fresher in 1986 than they are now, I dunno. They include a villainous doctor singing as he leisurely strolls after his victim, and Kinsey almost throwing herself down an empty elevator shaft. And she’s stabbed with some kind of knock-out drug, but somehow manages to stay conscious for several minutes to not only knock out the doctor, but also to get downstairs to a phone to call 911, because cell phones are not a thing yet. And, like in the last book, there’s a very speedy wrap-up with no actual conversations, just some informative lines about how everyone’s doing much better now (except the killer).

I was touched, though, by the start of the climax, the moment she realizes he’s about to kill her:

I usually cry when I’m scared and I could feel tears well up. Not sorrow, but horror.

Aw, Kinsey.

Along the way in the book, we had more of Kinsey’s inappropriate dalliances, including:

  • Her jealousy of a 60-year-old woman in competition for her 80-year-old landlord
  • Her yearning for a married man, who at least is hot now, unlike in the last book (this storyline bores me so much, though)
  • A wholly unnecessary description of a dog’s penis:

He stood up on his hind legs,  his front paws tucked over the gate. His dick looked like a hot dog in a long, furry bun and he wagged it at me like a guy who’s just stepped out of a phone booth to open his raincoat.

Wow, Kinsey. Thanks for that.

But it was good to hear about one of her exes (the druggie jazz pianist), to get some insight into her personal life back when it wasn’t so spartan. I do wonder, since she had such amazing hot sex with the killer in A is for Alibi, if she’s even more skittish about getting into relationships and her own judgment in that area. I know I’d be.

One of my favorite parts was her confession about snooping as a child and discovering sex toys:

It’s never a good idea to leave me in a room by myself. I’m an incurable snoop and I search automatically. Having been raised from the age of five by an unmarried aunt, I spent a lot of time as a child in the homes of her friends, most of whom had no children of their own. I was told to keep quiet and amuse myself, which I managed in the first five minutes with the latest in an endless series of coloring boks we brought with us when visiting. The problem was that I was terrible at keeping in the lines and the pictures always seemed dumb to me — little children frolicking with dogs and visiting farms. I didn’t like to color chickens or hogs, so I learned to search. In this manner, I discovered people’s hidden lives — the prescriptions in the medicine cabinets, tubes of jelly in bed-table drawers, cash reserves in the back of coat closets, startling sex manuals and marital artifacts between the mattress and box springs. Of course, I could never quiz my aunt afterward about the extraordinary-looking objects I came across because I wasn’t supposed to know about them in the first place. Fascinated, I would wander into the kitchen, where the adults in those days seemed to congregate, drinking highballs and talking about achingly dull things like politics and sports, and I would stare at women named Bernice and Mildred whose husbands were named Stanley and Edgar, and I would wonder who did what with the long doodad with the battery stuck in one end. It was not a flashlight. That much I knew. Early on, I discerned the sometimes remarkable distinction between public appearances and private tastes. These were the people my aunt forbade me to swear in front of no matter how we talked at home. Some of the phrases she used, I thought might have application here, but I could never confirm this. The whole process of education for me was learning the proper words to attach to things I already knew.

I think there’s a good deal of truth in that, for how children learn — it really is a matter of learning the names of things they’re already aware of.

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