Sue Grafton has a winner in 'W Is for Wasted'

"W Is for Wasted" by Sue Grafton; Putnam (496 pages, $28.95)

What's Kinsey Millhone been up to and what will happen to her?

That's really what readers want to know as Sue Grafton's series inches toward Z.

"W Is for Wasted," the 23rd entry in Grafton's alphabet series, means that the Santa Teresa, Calif., private detective will only be with us through three more novels.

Although naming each novel after a letter of the alphabet was an attention getter when "A Is for Alibi" came out in 1982, Grafton's series has never been a gimmick. In Kinsey, she created a realistic female detective, a woman of her times, independent and self-reliant and smart. Grafton, along with Sara Paretsky and Marcia Muller, also started a revolution in crime fiction with their female detectives and helped usher in a new "golden age" of mysteries that is still going strong.

While Grafton's series has had real ups and a few downs, the series has been on a steady upward spiral since "M Is for Malice" (1996). The well-plotted "W Is for Wasted" is one of the high points.

"W Is for Wasted" finds Kinsey in perfect form as she is drawn into an investigation involving the deaths of two men — a sleazy private detective she knew and a homeless man whom she had never met but turns out to be a distant relative on her father's side.

Kinsey has always had more than a few family issues, having never known her mother's family until midway through the series and this is the first brush with her father's relatives. With work unusually slow, Kinsey looks into the death of the homeless man, especially since he left all his money to her.

"W Is for Wasted" affords Kinsey a chance to wonder why she has shied away from relationships when her old lover, Robert Dietz, reappears. Memories of her two failed marriages and her upbringing give the 38-year-old Kinsey pause but don't stop the tenacious detective from finding a link between the deaths. Grafton also delivers a poignant and clear-eyed look at the plight of the homeless, showing how much has not changed over the past decades.

Grafton has kept the series firmly in the '80s, slowly moving toward the 1990s. "W Is for Wasted" is set in 1988 and much of the wit comes from remembering a world without computers or cellphones as well as Kinsey's own sharp views on the world.

"W Is for Wasted" is a worthy entry in the saga of Kinsey Millhone.


"How the Light Gets In" by Louise Penny; Minotaur (416 pages, $25.99)

The intricacies of relationships and the pleasures and pain of village life masterfully meld into Louise Penny's award-winning series about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Quebec police in Montreal.

Penny's elegant plotting and her affinity for off-kilter characters have put this Canadian author on the New York Times Best-Sellers List, among others, and earned her more than 25 awards. Penny's novels infuse the normally peaceful, nonviolent village mystery with serious threats and a sense of evil. The good people of the village of Three Pines must contend with knowing that very bad people reside among them, but their identities often are masked by seemingly ordinary lives.

Penny takes her mix of the cozy mystery and the police procedural to a new high in her enthralling ninth novel by merging two plots. "How the Light Gets In" is at once an Agatha Christie-style mystery, quiet and placid, and an intense thriller in which Gamache and Three Pines are under siege.

The charming, picturesque town offers Gamache respite from Montreal's congestion and the police force's oppressive attitude. And Three Pines' residents are genuinely happy to see Gamache, even if his presence means that the village again has been despoiled by violence.

The murder of elderly Constance Ouellet in Montreal occurs shortly after the woman's visit to Three Pines and just as she was packing for a return trip to the village. But Constance wasn't a typical senior citizen. No one knows she once was one of the most famous people in Canada, known throughout the world. She and her sisters were symbols of hope, considered to be living miracles. "Proof that God exists. A generous and kind God."

Gamache's professional and personal problems are at a low point. His homicide department has been disbanded by a corrupt superior, his former agents scattered to other squads.

The cops Gamache now supervises have little respect for him or their cases. Gamache has become estranged from his one-time friend and protege, Jean-Guy Beauvoir. Jean-Guy almost was his son-in-law but recently broke up with Gamache's daughter.

Gamache's problems uncoil logically, as the brisk pace builds through twist after twist. The empathic Gamache's realization that his investigations have made him a target of a violent supervisor adds to the palpable tension. The Three Pines residents are more than acquaintances — they are willing to go to any length to protect Gamache from his nemesis.

"How the Light Gets In" sparkles, from its amusing beginning to its jaw-dropping finale.


"Deceived" by Randy Wayne White; Putnam (352 pages, $26.95)

Randy Wayne White has made Florida's Gulf Coast an iconic part of crime fiction with his novels about Marion "Doc" Ford.

His new heroine Hannah Smith, introduced in last year's "Gone," isn't a substitute for Ford. But she is an intriguing enough character to make readers look forward to her second appearance in the suspenseful "Deceived." Smith, a Gulf Coast fishing guide who inherited a nearly defunct private detective agency from her uncle, lives near Ford's beloved Dinkin's Bay in Sanibel Island. But White is careful to sculpt Hannah as a distinct character. She is not just Ford in a dress — not that this outdoorswoman wears too many skirts.

White uses "Deceived" to continue exploring his concerns about Florida history and environment, adding in scams, especially those that target the elderly.

The brisk "Deceived" twists and turns as often as Hannah's boat navigates the hidden inlets and shoals of the Gulf while she tries to avoid the waves of human treachery.

The death of Rosanna Helms pulls Hannah into investigating the 20-year-old unsolved murder of her husband, Dwight. Dwight, like many commercial fishermen of the area, turned to smuggling marijuana after struggling with increased state regulations that put many of them out of work.

With their livelihoods threatened, many turned to drug running to support their families. Rosanna's death also may be related to a planned museum devoted to the "heritage of fisherfolk" that is pressuring Hannah's mother and other elderly residents into donating heirlooms and money.

Closer to home, Hannah gotten into a feud with her next-door neighbors who demolished a historically protected Indian mound and artifacts so they could build a mansion.

White connects the various plots with believable situations while delving into Hannah's personality.

The addition of history buff deputy sheriff Liberty Tupplemeyer adds a compelling dimension. Liberty becomes caught up in Hannah's investigation as two women become real friends.

Ford plays a small but vital role in "Deceived," but White wisely keeps him on the periphery. Ford and Hannah have become lovers but for most of the story he is away.

Meanwhile, Hannah has found her place in Florida as a government agent, which often intrudes on his life as a quiet marine biologist. These adventures, no doubt, will show up in the next Ford crime fiction, as "Deceived" proves.

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