This wonderful collection is quirky, but not only in the manner in which the now-immortal Kinsey Millhone is quirky. I suspect it’s the closest Grafton will ever come to writing an autobiography or memoir, and what little of it is here, is very brave stuff. As we approach the time of life in which Grafton now finds herself, it’s good to do some looking back, figuring out why we did some of what we did, and also coming to terms with some of the less lovely things we went through.
The introduction is expository in nature, and it’s very good. It is the first time I’ve seen it spelled out, what the distinction is between mystery, detective fiction, and crime fiction. In addition, she speaks to the ways in which short stories differ from novels within her genre. She makes it crystal clear and wraps it up with a bow. No droning lecture, but of course, that isn’t Grafton’s style; not ever. She also attempts to differentiate herself from her character. When she says Kinsey is who she might have become had she remained single and childless, I believe her. When she says that mischievous sense of humor is Kinsey’s rather than her own, I don’t believe it for a minute. But it’s a very fun read, one of the most interesting introductions I have ever read.
The first section consists of some Kinsey short stories that were written, some of them published in magazines, prior to the takeoff of the alphabet series. They are every bit as good. I am very fond of collections and anthologies, because they give me permission to put the book down at some point and go do something else…sleep, for instance. Though shorter, they are every bit as good as her longer work.
The last section is one that Grafton says was created largely from her own effort to come to grips with her own past as the child of two alcoholic parents. I think somewhere along the line, every really prolific reader hits a piece of writing that unexpectedly punches them in the solar plexus, leaves them staring disbelieving at the page saying, “Aw, holy shit, I totally did that too!” This was one of those moments for me. I have read thousands of books and had moments like this one maybe three times. It won’t be the same for you, most likely, but if you are a fan of Grafton’s, it is still worth reading. There follow some stories that are not humorous, but strong writing nevertheless.
Because she so effortlessly switches hats so many times in this one volume, first providing us with the most informative, most accessible, best written overview of the genre I have come across; then offering some brief personal notes about herself; then giving us the detective humor that we have come to know and enjoy; then writing briefly and more soberly about her own past; and then breaking out the stark, somber short stories that caught me by surprise, she underscores exactly what a serious, bad-ass writer she is. She is not just a writer of funny detective stories, though I consider those books to be excellent literature, and I love them. She is a scholar, and I can’t help wondering if that wasn’t a good part of the reason she put this volume together in the twilight of her career. We must regard her a serious writer, a woman of great talent. That’s what she is.