S Is For Silence By Sue Grafton

Whodunit that shines a light into dark corners of small-town America
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The twin queens of crime writing in the US are Patricia Cornwell and Sue Grafton. While Cornwell (who writes grisly, narrative-driven novels full of forensic detail) is, in person, intense and somewhat prickly, Grafton is softly spoken and unostentatious. While there is a distinct change of atmosphere when Cornwell enters the room, Grafton would pride herself on the fact that she might not be noticed.

It's her laser-sharp ability to read (and reproduce) human behaviour while not giving away too much about herself that Grafton has parleyed into her long-running female private eye series. This began in 1982 with A is for Alibi and has now reached S is for Silence.

While the adjective "feisty" is routinely applied to Cornwell's pathologist heroine Kay Scarpetta, Grafton's gumshoe Kinsey Millhone does not lend herself so readily to categorisation. While a survivor, and preternaturally gifted in getting under the skin of those she encounters, Millhone has a chameleon-like skill that helps put her witnesses and suspects at ease. In this, she is something like an American distaff George Smiley - with an added taste for junk food.

S is for Silence demonstrates why Grafton has such a dedicated following, with Millhone as dogged (and perceptive) as ever, trying to crack a particularly intractable mystery. In 1953, the promiscuous Violet (married to the abusive Foley) disappeared, blowing a kiss to her daughter. Now, 35 years later, the unhappy Daisy has decided that finding out what happened to her mother is the only way she can put her unresolved life in order.

She hires Millhone, who questions all those who knew Violet. Was she murdered by Foley? Or is her vanishing a more complex affair? As Millhone gets closer to the truth, she finds the co-operation of the townspeople hardening into something more hostile.

Grafton eschews synthetic climaxes and provides a more realistic unravelling of the mystery. If there's a problem with that approach, it's possibly that Millhone is told over and over again how sluttish the missing Violet was, while any description of the husband is incomplete without the information that he used to beat her. But Grafton cannily moves things on to another level, and the revelations begin to come satisfyingly thick and fast. Like her great predecessor Ross Macdonald, Grafton foregrounds characterisation at all times, and some of the observation of small-town American life here has the acuity of Richard Ford.