Book review: F is for Fugitive, by Sue Grafton

If by some chance I achieve sainthood after my death, please see that I become the patron saint of all hyper-sexualized teenage girls with tragic endings.

Two cases in point: Krystal Wheedon of The Casual Vacancy, and Jean Timberlake of F is for Fugitive.

Jean Timberlake was murdered seventeen years before the story begins, though her convicted killer escaped from prison less than two years after he entered (becoming the Fugitive referenced in the book’s title). Kinsey is brought onto the case by his father, after he’s caught again and is facing the rest of his term, plus additional time for the escape. Naturally, the father wants her to find Jean’s real killer.

So Kinsey meets an ensemble of characters in a tiny California town, all of whom are figuratively lined up for the reader as potential murder suspects. The real killer was quite well concealed — perhaps too well. Upon reaching the revelation, I was skeptical that this particular person had never shown a sign of such substantial delusion and psychopathic tendencies as were now in evidence. Also, the abrupt turn into a contemplation of the effect of a father’s love, etc., felt rather forced.

Grafton remains adept at character portraits and a tight narrative, carried by Kinsey’s dry humor and punctuated by at least one grisly and unexpected death along the way (this one had three!). I’m growing to look forward to those.

My favorite descriptive one-liner in this installment:

Her legs lay on top of the bedclothes like haunches of meat not yet trimmed of fat.

But the most memorable scene of the book is when Kinsey was attacked by a woman wielding a tennis racket with deadly intent. I love how Kinsey ended by punching her in the face. In fact, the scene is so well-written, exemplifying Grafton’s talent (and I don’t have much else to say about the book), I’ll go ahead and share it in full:

I was halfway out the door when Mrs. Dunne appeared. She was still in tennis clothes, her pale cheeks flushed. I could see that she recognized me from my first visit to the place. My return wasn’t greeted with the delight I had hoped for. She was holding her racket like a hatchet, the wooden rim edgewise. I eased away, keeping an eye on her. I don’t usually feel that threatened by horsey women with big legs, but she had already stepped across the line into my psychological space. She moved forward a step, standing so close now I could smell her breath, no big treat.

“I was hoping to get some help on a case, but I guesss I was wrong.”

“Call the police,” she said flatly to him.

Without any warning, she lifted the racket like a samurai sword.

I skipped back as the racket swopped down at me. “Whoa, lady! You better watch that,” I said.

She struck out at me again, missing.

I had dodged in reflex. “Hey! Knock it off!”

She whacked at me again, fanning the air within an inch of my face. I jerked back. This was ludicrous. I wanted to laugh, but the racket had hissed with a savagery that made my stomach lurch. I danced backward as she advanced. She swatted again with the Wilson and missed. Her face had taken on an expression of avid concentration, eyes glittering, lips parted slightly. Behind her, I was dimly aware that Dr. Dunne’s attitude had shifted from wariness to concern.

“Elva, that’s enough,” he said.

I didn’t think she’d heard him, or if she had, she didn’t care. The racket whacked at me sideways, wielded this time like a broadax. She shifted her weight, her grip two-handed as she sliced diagonally, and sliced again.

Whack, whack!

Missing me by a hair’s breadth and only because I was quick. She was totally focused and I was afraid if I turned to run, she’d catch me in the back of the head. Take a crack like that and you’re talkin’ blood, folks. Not a fatal impact, but one you’d prefer to skip.

Up came the racket again. The wood rim descended like a blade, too swift this time to evade. I took the brunt of it on my left forearm, raised instinctively to shield my face. The racket connected with a cracking sound. The blow was like a white flash of heat up my arm. I can’t say I felt pain. It was more like a jolt to my psyche, unleashing aggression.

I caught her in the mouth with the heel of my hand, knocking her back into him. The two of them went down with a mingled yelp of surprise. The air around me felt white and empty and clean. I grabbed her shirt with an unholy strength, hauling her to her feet. Without any thought at all, I punched her once, registering an instant later the smacking sound as my fist connected with her face.

Someone snagged my arm from behind. The desk clerk was hanging onto me, screaming incoherently. My left hand was still knotted in Elva’s shirt. She tried to backstroke out of range, arms flailing as she yodeled with fear, eyes wide.

My self-control reasserted itself and I lowered my fist. She fairly crowed with relief, staring at me with astonishment. I don’t know what she’d seen in my face, but I knew what I’d seen in hers. I felt giddy with power, happiness surging through me like pure oxygen. There’s something about physical battle that energizes and liberates, infusing the body with an ancient chemistry — a cheap high with a sometimes deadly effect. A blow to the face is as insulting as you can get, and there’s no predicting what you’ll garner in return. I’ve seen barroom disputes end in death over a slap on the cheek.

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