Book Review-Sue Grafton Kinsey Millhone Series

Sue Grafton is pretty big in Santa Barbara because–well, like anyone anywhere, locals are a bit vain about the series being set in Santa Barbara. Being a bit defiantly hipster I wasn’t really interested in the series as long as I was living there. But from a distance it was a taste of something wholly familiar that I loved and hated in equal parts.

I have finally finished  with this series! With long running series, especially mysteries I often find that there’s no good way to review the books separate from one another because the connections between books, the setting and the flow of the series as a whole is really what I am seeking as a reader of a series (versus standalone). Since I can’t review the whole series on Goodreads I won’t be cross posting. But the benefit of that is that I can delve in to reviewing it without relying as strongly on the star system.

As a whole completed series (understanding that Grafton was unable to truly complete the series) I rate it much higher than I rate any individual book. So, let’s get this out of the way:

***** I would give the series as a whole the full five stars because of the ways in which each book in the series explores Santa Barbara and the many connected regions and people. There is something wholly authentic about the places, the characters and how they connect together. It rings truthful to my experiences as someone born in the region who has familial ties all over the state. Generally the stories are as good as in any mystery series with some that are significantly better than others.

*** However, taken separately I would rank most of the books in the three star range because Grafton has this habit of killing off minor, interesting characters in order the ramp up the drama and that really bothered me each time it happened. Grafton’s storytelling strengths are not in her high drama but in her grasp for subtle details and nuances. Late in the series she splits the story between Kinsey’s narration and third person observation of story happening outside of Kinsey’s field of vision–this improves the series because Kinsey’s personality causes a certain limitation of perspective generally that sometimes results in a bit of an untrustworthy narrator situation (Kinsey’s jaded perspective can wipe away subtle details that she just doesn’t have the capacity to notice).

A is for Alibi was good for being the first novel in the series, I thought it touched all the bases to establish the conventions and characters in the series but as with a lot of first in the series mysteries it wasn’t Wow! but I think it was solid all around.

B is for Burglar struck me as a great follow up because I enjoyed Kinsey running around trying to put the pieces together and I felt that Grafton was freer to develop the story because she had already established her characters.

C is for Corpse was my favorite for the scene staging and character development but the story itself was secondary to those (which I love).

D is for Deadbeat echoed the first three with regard to following some of the same conventions but it wasn’t one of my favorites.

E is for Evidence was another ho hum addition to the series but it represents a turning point Kinsey’s life and taken along with the whole series I actually really enjoyed it.

F is for Fugitive was one I liked as a stand alone because Kinsey spends so much time outside of Santa Tereasa.

G is for Gumshoe felt like a turning point in the series, I think Sue Grafton was beginning to hit her stride here and stretching beyond the confines of the early books. Kinsey is always more interesting when she is vulnerable and not trying to be a badass alone, the moments in the series when this happens are some of the best. Dietz is one of the characters that reveals this side of her.

H is for Homicide is great because it has a little L.A. Noir feel to it and underscored the connection between the sleepy Santa Barbara stand in and the big sprawling city of Los Angeles less than two hours away.

I is for Innocent arguably has the most twists and turns in the series and I think it is where Grafton begins to develop stories that require more than Kinsey’s unique perspective in order to do them justice.

J is for Judgment was another in the series that I enjoyed as a stand alone (although it does connect to the larger world of Kinsey) but didn’t feel much one way or the other about beyond enjoying the story.

K is for Killer follows J is for Judgment in being fairly standalone, enjoyable and is most memorable to me for interesting character studies.

L is for Lawless is probably the most fun in the series with Kinsey going on an extended trip and it marks a bit of a turning point for her with regard to how she thinks of herself and what she thinks of family.

M is Malice is one of the strongest books in the series and apparently quite the fan favorite. I think it is because Grafton has a strong vision for the story that weaves in her usual characters, places and observations elegantly.

N is for Noose is a nice return to Dietz and a fairly good stand alone story that takes place in the Northern parts of California. Having grown up in roughly the fictional region she creates I think she captured some of the mood but not nearly as well as she captures Southern California and aspects of the Central Valley.

O is for Outlaw is a wonderfully vulnerable exploration of Kinsey, this time in relation to one of her ex-husbands but it was also where I felt Grafton was falling into some patterns with the ways she ups the drama for Kinsey.

P is for Peril is another ok standalone.

Q is for Quarry is wonderful! I think when taken together with P is for Peril it is clear that Grafton was filling in story between Outlaw and Quarry. This is definitely my favorite in the series.

R is for Ricochet is fun and I enjoyed it in the vein of my favorites in the series but it is more of a standalone and Grafton falls into some familiar ruts.

S is for Silence, another favorite in the series, aspects of Grafton’s writing improve immensely as she develops her world and characters which is refreshing.

T is for Trespass is the book I enjoyed the least, something about the story just totally bothered me and I could never get past it.

U is for Undertow begins threads that tie together with several of the last books in the series and marks changes in Kinsey becoming (relatively) more empathetic.

V is for Vengeance is a delightful break from Kinsey, Grafton delved further into periphery characters and seemed to really enjoy exploring the world beyond Kinsey. Though not the first book that splits perspectives I think she hit her stride here.

W is for Wasted, as with Q is for Quarry this book deepens our (and Kinsey’s) knowledge of her family.  It is also one of Grafton’s first books in the series that really heavily gestures toward the real Santa Barbara she’s writing the book in as it relates to the complicated issues of homelessness. It is also the book in the series that made me wonder most how Z would have concluded the series.

X begins the only cliffhanger in the series and is another favorite.

Y is for Yesterday is shaky at times but overall it provided closure to the cliffhanger and reasonable closure to the series.

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