'Q is for Quarry': latest in alphabet series is strained

Posted: Sunday, April 11, 2004

Way back when, author Sue Grafton had a bright idea: Write a series of mysteries starring a female detective, Kinsey Millhone, and create 26 of them, one for each letter of the alphabet.

Knowing how readers like detective stories, and how compulsive readers need to "shelve every one" of a series, Grafton's idea seemed an excellent one. She began with "A is for Alibi," "B is for Burglar," and so on through "P is for Peril."

However, as she has found, the distance from A to Z can be fraught with perils. Keeping interest high letter after letter is a hard row to hoe.

I like mysteries as much as the next reader, and I enjoy reading about a modern female who is more-or-less in charge of things.

However, Grafton shows the strain of her task in her latest novel, "Q is for Quarry." Yes, it is a New York Times Bestseller. But I'll bet you a nickel that many of those who purchased this book never finished it. It lacks the flow of the earlier novels and has a strained quality to its development.

In "Q is for Quarry," Grafton departs from her fictional formula and writes about a real case, the case of Jane Doe, an unsolved homicide that occurred in Santa Barbara County in August 1969. Grafton heard about the case at a September 2000 dinner party during the period when she had just finished "P is for Peril" and was casting about for her next plot. By coincidence, a fellow dinner guests was Dr. Robert Failing, a forensic pathologist who worked for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department from 1961 until 1996. In 2001, she was given by the detectives assigned to the homicide a copy of the murder book for the Jane Doe case-a file containing case notes, investigative reports and photographs of the body and the area where it was found.

Hooked on the case, Grafton underwrote the exhumation of the unclaimed body and hiring a forensic sculptor to recreate Jane's likeness. (The final page of the book contains four views of the forensic reconstruction.)

There are some interesting characters in "Q is for Quarry," but somehow the book doesn't jell. Perhaps this stems from the difficulty of merging facts about the stabbing victim wearing unusual daisy-print pants with the fictional hitchhiker whose life and times Grafton creates. Combining the search for the victim's identity and killer with Millhone's own disappointing search for living and loving relatives somehow falls flat.

What might have worked better here was writing a true crime story of the Ann Rule sort. However, then it wouldn't have fit into the series.

On the plus side, it is sobering to learn how common this case is-how common it is that found bodies cannot be matched with any missing-persons reports, and that America is pocked with unmarked graves.

•Ann Chandonnet is the author of "Alaska's Arts, Crafts & Collectibles" and other books.

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