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LaVonne Neff

X Hits the Spot

For the 24th time, P.I. Kinsey Millhone pursues the annoying, the foolish, and the seriously wicked.

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Grafton writes so well that it’s easy to overlook her spare and elegant style. Her prose is simple and unobtrusive, moving the story along without calling attention to itself. Her words are ordinary but precise. Her sentences have rhythm. She uses descriptive detail effectively to create a sense of place. Even her minor characters have individual quirks.

Her books are generally well researched (who knew that gray water had to pass through healthy topsoil to avoid bacterial contamination?), though if Kinsey were a practicing Catholic, she might have found an additional reason to distrust Father Xavier’s recollections. The priest tells her that, back in 1961, a character named Pete briefly considered converting to Catholicism, and he says he encouraged Pete to join “the group class we offer on the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.” Apparently the priest forgot—or Grafton did not realize—that in 1961 there was no RCIA. It was a product of Vatican II, which had not yet begun, and was rarely used in Catholic parishes until the late 1980s. Fortunately his anachronism is only a venial lapse, peripheral to the story and easily forgiven in this arresting tale that is among Grafton’s most satisfying.

A mystery is literary comfort food, because we can be pretty sure that before the book ends, most of its puzzles will be solved. With this one, though, one mystery remains: why did Grafton drop her usual formula and call it simply X? “I’ve checked the penal codes in most states and xylophone isn’t a crime, so I’m stuck,” Grafton quipped two years ago. To be sure, there are a lot of x’s in the story: the Xanakis couple; their portage company, XLNT; a painting of a xebec; an X on a banker’s box; the Bank of X. Phillips; Father Xavier. There are quite a few exes as well. The story begins with Teddy plotting revenge against her ex, and three of Kinsey’s ex-boyfriends make cameo appearances. None of the x’s (or exes) apply to the whole book, however. Eventually, Grafton told Jocelyn McClurg at USA Today, “it occurred to me that since I was the one who invented this 'rule' about '… is for … ' I was surely entitled to break it.” “I think it's best,” she said to novelist/blogger Mark Rubinstein, “if X represents the unknown.”

So far there’s no word on the street about what, if anything, Y represents, though Grafton long ago revealed that Z Is for Zero. By 2019, when the alphabet series is complete, Kinsey will be almost 40 and Grafton will be 79. Will she continue to write? Like Kinsey, whom Grafton has said “is herself, only younger, smarter, and thinner,” Grafton may be ill-suited to a life of leisure. Her legions of fans, myself among them, hope that’s true.

LaVonne Neff, who lives a stone’s throw from America’s second-most violent city, blogs at Lively Dust.

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