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GRAFTON'S `G IS FOR GUMSHOE' IS JUST G-G-G-GREAT

Mystery readers can be a dedicated, even a fanatical bunch. No other readers are more disdainful of the authors and subgenres they don't like. Nobody searches the shelves more eagerly to see if a favorite writer has finally come out with a new book. And nobody falls on that new work with more tender mews of delight.

It was with precisely such joy that I discovered Sue Grafton's "G Is for Gumshoe" on the shelves. This novel is Grafton's latest stop on her gallop through the alphabet, beginning with her original and delightful "A Is for Alibi," where she first introduces the tough-talking, pistol-packing detective Kinsey Millhone, with her beige Volkswagen and one drip-dry, wrinkle-proof black dress. That book begins with Millhone, in a brief paragraph of vital statistics, saying, "The day before yesterday I killed someone and the fact weighs heavily on my mind."This new novel, like the others, is as much Kinsey's report to herself as anything - a way of organizing, or making sense of the violence of her work.

In fact, perhaps the greatest strength of all of these books, "G Is for Gumshoe" included, is Grafton's development of her detective as a whole, complex person who thinks about her actions and their implications and who makes mistakes, both practical and moral, that she learns from. The voice Grafton gives Millhone can be contemplative or wry or both; her eye is sharp; her language is both straightforward and, at times, deeply evocative. Grafton is one of those rare writers who can give the mystery reader high, stylized suspense in a real novel with real writing in it.

In A through F, as a matter of fact, Grafton's detective has gained a wildly enthusiastic following among women who have finally found a heroine who reminds them of themselves, but more so - pretty tough but a little scared, competent but not invulnerable, very independent but occasionally ambivalent about being alone, sexy mainly to men attracted by her unwillingness to give up her sense of self. Kinsey Millhone gives the reader a chance to stretch and test convention, but she is no super-woman: throughout, she remains nothing more nor less than absolutely human.

As I've followed the series, I've worried that Grafton may lose some of her energy, some of her quirkiness, in favor of turning a fast buck by turning out a fast, slick novel without the careful writing and depth I've grown to depend on her for. With "G Is for Gumshoe," though, I've breathed a sigh of relief: Grafton may just make it.

True, the prose is getting more streamlined book by book. But what this really means is that Grafton is getting a tighter grip on her style. The descriptions now don't just evoke a place or set a scene; they deepen the mood and further complicate the plot as well. She knows exactly when to slow down and what precise detail to give us, as when, in this novel, the killer stalking Kinsey finally catches up with her:

"Behind me, wood snapped like a tree being cracked by lightning. I could see his face, suffused with heat, like a lover at the moment of his climax."

Or later, when she's looking for the killer through a nightscope:

"I peered through the scope, startled by the sudden eerie green clarity of the landscape. Where the black had seemed dense and impenetrable, there was now a fine haze of green, with objects outlined in neon."

Among mystery readers I know, Kinsey Millhone is becoming a kind of cult heroine, a sort of female Sam Spade but with more complexity, more self-awareness. The books pass from hand to hand.

"G Is for Gumshoe" gives me no reason to think this trend will do anything but grow. For months, Grafton readers all over America have been wondering: would the new book be "G Is for Gumption"? For Grisly? For Guile? To me, the answer is clear: G is for Grafton. If you like mysteries at all, read this book. And then, go back and start at the beginning, with A. If you're lucky, by the time you're finished, we'll know what H is for.