Book Critique – "A" is for Alibi (Alphabet Mystery #1)

For review of all books in this series: Go here.

Stars: 3 / 5

My Recommendation: A female detective with all the edges of the likes of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, investigating cases while venturing her personal life into something more - what more does one want when parched for such a character. The wait is over!

"A" is for Alibi is the debut murder mystery novel in the Kinsey Millhone "Alphabet Mystery" series by Sue Grafton, first published in April of 1982. The book centers on a murder case being re-opened by Kinsey's client who seeks her help.

The Alphabet Mystery series revolves around the various cases handled by Kinsey Millhone, a former police officer turned private investigator. She is based in Santa Teresa, a fictional town in California. With this series, Sue Grafton sets a bar for female private investigators in a world when most of them were predominantly male or were considered amateur detectives like with Nancy Drew or Jessica Fletcher from Murder, She Wrote.

I had heard about Sue Grafton novels a long time ago, but never got around to pick one of her book. And in 2017 when she passed away without finishing the alphabet, I was determined to read her books in the series, to see what was the uproar about. Well, finally I managed it. And where better to begin than at the beginning, with her very first book.

Kinsey Millhone is approached by Nikki Fife, to re-investigate the murder of her husband, Laurence Fife. For which Nikki had already been tried and convicted. Now it is upto Kinsey to prove that she had been wronged, or may be Nikki was in the wrong all along and is creating smoke and mirrors now. 

Sue Grafton explores the concept of alibi, and how it does not hold value for some situations, in this story. She butchers the concept very neatly into tiny pieces, then puts them all together to form a tapestry that has more twists than one can imagine. 

With the book written in 1982 and plot set in the same year, and since I am reading it in 2019, a good 37 years after it was first penned, I see glimpses of the past that I have lived, through out the plot. A few that I see in this are - telephone booths; rolls for camera; typewriter to jot down notes. However, for a book written in the early 80s, I was surprised to see a lot of words that would otherwise be considered very bold language for that period.

In one scene, Sue has Kinsey face a pair of geese who cackle deviously trying to attack her. That reminded me of a time when I was living in an apartment in Chicago and the geese were very territorial and would attack anyone who passed by. It was a terrifying time for mild hearted person like me. :P

She however, gives one sub-plot a rather heavy and saddened ending. Although I did feel a disconnect between a narration for one of the characters regarding the same incident in two different chapters. There is a lot of droning by the author when she gives the mundane activities of the heroine, or her drive around the state in search of clues, or sceneries around the areas of investigation. Hopefully she has changed this style in her future books.

If I had read this book when it had been published, I would have been a bit less impressed. However, I would give Sue points for creating a female detective with all the edges and character like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe or even Sherlock Holmes. Although I see a lot more similarities to Sam Spade than the rest. 

Just for that and despite the one disconnect, I look forward to read the rest of the books in her series, with the hope that she would have made her plots a little more less droning. A good start for certainly a lengthy series by this charming author.

Spoiler Alerts:

1. Plot Reveals:

a. Lyle Abernathy, one of the murder victim's ex-boyfriend, seems to take on the whole James Dean persona per the author. She mentions his 1955 film East of Eden which was based on the novel of the same name. Adding to my list to read and watch, both.

b. Sue Grafton also mentions some more classic films and TV shows that are tempting to watch:

i. 1953 technicolor biographical film Young Bess.

ii. One of her character watches Let's Make a Deal TV game show, but she doesn’t mention it explicitly, just describes the show instead. 

c. Interestingly enough Sue talks about Scarsdale Diet being practiced by one of the characters, Garry Steinberg. Seems to be it is still an accepted practice even after 37 years and has some good results. May be I will try someday once my oncologist allows for it. :)

2. Sub-Plots: 

a. Kinsey has two friends who live in Claremont, CA - Gideon and Nell and their two kids.

3. Grammatical / Character / Plot / Geographical / Historical / Mythological Errors:

a. There was one disconnect I found with the plot. Nikki Fife when first sees the letter of evidence that her dead husband might have had an affair with another murder victim, she just accepts that it was written by her husband. But towards the end Nikki Fife speaks of the letter as if she had seen it before and that it was evidence in another case between her dead husband and another woman who was not the murder victim. Sue lost her translation somewhere along the line I feel.


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