1982’s Shamus Award nominee A is for Alibi is the first volume in Sue Grafton’s Alphabet series. Grafton died in late 2017, twenty five books into a twenty six book series.
After serving eight years for murdering her husband, socialite turned reluctant ex-con Nikki Fife hires private investigator Kinsey Millhone to clear her name. Five thousand dollars1 is enough to get Millhone’s attention, although not, as she warns her client, her exclusive attention.
The first step is to figure out who wanted Laurence Fife dead. Millhone very quickly discovers that the list of suspects is a long one.
Laurence Fife was a successful divorce lawyer, a profession that guarantees a healthy supply of enemies. He was also an avid philanderer who seemed to prefer women already in relationships. There’s another unhappy ex-wife (in addition to Millhone’s client Nikki) plus a host of disgruntled former lovers and (potentially) every husband and boyfriend whose wife or girlfriend Laurence seduced.
Laurence was poisoned; his medication had been replaced by oleander. Oleander grows everywhere in Santa Teresa; anyone in town had access to the plant. While the killer had to have had access to Laurence’s medication to insert a tampered pill, the insertion could have occurred at any time after the bottle of medication was purchased. The prosecution was able to convince a jury that Nikki was the only one who had motive, means, and opportunity … but, Millhone realizes, so did a considerable cross section of Santa Teresa.
A friend on the police force grudgingly allows Millhone to peruse the case file. Millhone makes a very interesting discovery. Although the police were never able to gather enough evidence to go to court, there was a second murder that the police believed to have been connected to Laurence’s murder. Libby Glass worked for the accounting firm Laurence and his partner used, and Glass too died of oleander poisoning.
Perhaps Millhone can compare the lists of suspects for the two murders and emerge with a single person who had motive, means and opportunity for both murders. That assumes that the same person was responsible for both killings. Similar MOs and the fact that Laurence knew Glass are highly suggestive but (as the police’s inability to build a case proved) hardly conclusive.
Millhone is nothing if not diligent. She’s willing to consider every possibility, even the possibility that her client was in fact as guilty as the state claimed she was. It’s the sort of diligence that will end up with Millhone facing a killer.
A rumour I’ve heard for years, never confirmed, is that Grafton’s murder victims were based on people who annoyed her in real life. I hope this is true. One of the benefits of writing is the opportunity to have the last word. Piss off a writer and find yourself incarnated as any number of victims and monsters.
For some reason, Millhone is tangled up in my brain with Sarah Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski. Warshawski is a much darker character than Millhone, with a bleaker world view. The two characters are not really much alike, which leads me to conclude the “for some reason” is actually “because there were not all that many best selling series, written by women and featuring women detectives, in the 1980s.” That is about as defensible as conflating Pride and Prejudice with Wuthering Heights because both were written by women, they are set in much the same period, and both involve marriage and status.
I hope this isn’t too much of a spoiler to reveal this, but Milhone does not die in this book. No, she goes on to star in twenty-five more books. Not only that, this book was written in the first person, by Millhone. Reporting on the case after the fact. Oh, and revealing she killed someone while pursuing the case2.
The passage of thirty-five years since A is for Alibi’ s publication has transformed what was a modern detective novel into a period piece3. Millhone does a fair amount of driving back and forth between Santa Teresa (a thinly disguised Santa Barbara) and Los Angeles because she has to; very few people had email back then and of course the world wide web did not exist. Similarly, Millhone doesn’t have a cell phone, which means she cannot just call 911 any time she’s stalked by a killer. (However, handguns worked much the same then as they do now.) Having lived through the period, I don’t find these archaisms surprising4 but younger readers might. Technological change does drive a crucial element of the plot, but if I told you which element, that would be a spoiler.
Although the novel ends abruptly, it serves as an effective introduction to Millhone and her setting, establishing Millhone’s background (tragic), her lifestyle (spartan), her work habits (admirable), and her observational skills (impressive, although bordering on obsessive where fashion is concerned). As is the custom in the mystery genre, although the novel is part of a series, it can be read and enjoyed on its own.
1: About $13,000 in current money.
2: Two, if you count the potential witness who gets a bullet in the throat before Millhone can question her. Millhone herself is not clear if that second person counts. One of the differences between Millhone and other PIs is that death, even the death of people who deserve it, does not please Millhone.
3: Grafton’s solution to the fact that cell phones and the web killed a number of stock plot elements was to keep her series firmly set in the 1980s. This means the later books were deliberate period pieces. It also means Millhone managed to cram twenty-five cases and who knows how many bodies into about six years. Reminds me of how many Aubrey-Maturin books Patrick O’Brian squeezed into the Napoleonic Wars.
4: I was a bit surprised when I reread Donald Westlake’s A Likely Story, whose backdrop is the passage of a book from conception to publication. Apparently computers had had little impact on publishing even as late as the mid-1980s.