By Ian G. Wilson
Sue Grafton’s final novel in the Kinsey Millhone series, Y is for Yesterday, is a curious animal. Some sections are dark as pitch, containing scenes of underage sexual assault and the results of a serial killer’s efforts. And then we have almost comedic scenes, with Millhone making wry comments about her experiences. It makes for intriguing, if not always pleasant, reading.
The plot speeds along, opening in 1979 with Iris, a teenage girl, who unwittingly sets a series of events in motion that lead to the shooting death of another girl, Sloan Stevens. As the story unfolds, Iris becomes the subject of a pornographic video made by some of her “friends.” She is not only under the age of consent, but also practically unconscious through the agency of several gin and tonics, so a rape video might be a more accurate description of what the unpleasant film is.
Moving forward to 1989, Fritz McCabe, the boy found guilty of shooting Sloan, is released from a juvenile detention center in California. Fritz is immediately in trouble again, as the tape resurfaces, and he is front and center as one of Iris’ assailants. Soon Fritz’s parents receive a blackmail demand, and that is where Kinsey Millhone is brought in. As a private investigator, she can be discreet in her inquiries, more so than the police, who also would probably throw Fritz back in jail. I say can be discreet as, in practice, Millhone has a tendency to make as much noise as possible, both literally and figuratively, in her detective work.
Kinsey is having her own problems. She is being stalked by a serial killer named Ned, whose modus operandi is asphyxiating women and girls. Ned is after a box of the trinkets he stole from his victims. These souvenirs are now in the possession of his ex-wife. As the tension rises in this plotline, one woman is violently attacked, and Kinsey is practically roasted alive.
Grafton avoids overwhelming readers with such a dark story by making the first person Kinsey Millhone chapters take place in 1989 (the present) and most of the chapters involving the students occur ten years earlier, so she shifts back and forth between Lord of the Flies-type evil and Chandleresque descriptions of people, places, and things. Because Kinsey is an amiable narrator, I naturally felt empathy with her, and as the scenes with the students are distanced by time and third person references, their atrocities seem less in your face, so it was possible for me to enjoy the book despite being disgusted by the kids’ behavior.
These examples from the text may give you an idea of the two different styles Grafton is using. The first comes from a 1989 excerpt where Millhone is trying to determine how her cousin got pregnant while she was taking birth control pills:
“I didn’t know you were depressed.” [Kinsey]
“Well, I am now.” [Anna]
“Why would a doctor prescribe Saint-John’s-Wort? That seems weird.”
“Not a doctor. The woman working at the health food store.”
“Oh, good for you. A specialist.”
“Well, she acted like she knew what she was talking about. I told her I was anxious and tired and had no appetite. I wasn’t sleeping well, either. She said it sounded like depression and I should pick up a bottle of Saint-John’s-Wort. Now I find out if you’re taking it, you’re supposed to use backup birth control . . . you know, like a condom or something, just to be safe.”
“It didn’t occur to you a supplement might have negative side effects?”
“Kinsey, it’s organic. It’s not like a drug company manufactures it. The plant grows in meadows and on roadsides. It’s completely natural.”
“So are death cap mushrooms and oleander leaves.”
“You said you wouldn’t criticize.”
“I never said that. You did.”
This type of snappy dialog characterizes the later sections, and you can see it’s spirited and humorous. Now, on a darker level, we have something from 1979. On the night Sloan is shot, she attends an end-of-the-year party. Sloan is cautious, knowing she has enemies around her. Her disquietude intensifies when she discovers Iris in the kitchen making punch. Iris is already drunk, so even though she does quip about the punch ingredients, it is the humorless humor of someone who has had too much to drink, all the more saddening because she is still a child.
Iris polished off the punch that she had poured for Troy and then paused to light a cigarette, probably thinking she looked sophisticated for a fourteen-year-old. All Sloan could think about was Iris splayed out on the pool table while a wobbly handheld video recorder made a pitiless visual record of her disgrace.
Sloan took a sip of her punch. The alcohol content was almost overwhelming, with a faint suggestion of fruit. She made a face. ‘What’s in this? Yuck.’
‘All natural ingredients except for the red food coloring. Vodka, pink lemonade, and sloe gin, whatever that is. The strawberries are organic. Very wholesome.’
‘I don’t see any strawberries.’
Iris peered into the bowl. ‘Oops. Guess I forgot. Oh well. I leave it to your imagination.’
‘Not my business, but are you going to be okay up here? Poppy told me you were supposed to be spending the night with her.’
Iris made a dismissive gesture. ‘My parents are at a day-long retreat. Tantra yoga. Unfolding their spiritual natures by screwing their brains out. They won’t be home until after dinner.’
‘Just be careful.’
Sloan crossed the patio to a spot near Austin and stood watching him roll another joint, which he stacked with its mates in a vintage cigarette case.
‘I see you got here all right,’ he remarked.
Austin is a particularly vicious young man, manipulating his friends into doing his dirty work for him. He is the architect of the video, but acts only as the director, watching as his friends rape Iris and not lifting a finger to stop the assault.
Kinsey’s task is complicated by a cast of former classmates of Fritz, all of whom had some connection to the tape, though they don’t all appear on it. Among them may be the blackmailer or even a killer. It is clear Fritz is meant to take the fall, but the question is, for whom? All Kinsey has to do is stop the blackmail scheme from getting out of hand and prevent herself from becoming Ned’s next victim. Given her unfortunate talent for rubbing people the wrong way, she’s lucky to escape by the skin of her teeth.
When Grafton died late in 2017 after a long illness, readers were uncertain about what would become of the last letter of the alphabet series. Her husband has stated that she didn’t want people ghostwriting or finishing her work for her. Grafton did always maintain that the last book would be titled Z Is for Zero. When Grafton’s copyright runs out near the end of the century, someone may indeed write a Z Is for Zero, but, for now, fans will have to accept that Grafton’s alphabet has only twenty-five letters.
Although I admit to being squeamish about the sexual assault material, I did enjoy Y Is for Yesterday. Grafton’s prose may not be elegant, but it is fast and witty. And the subsidiary characters who show up at Kinsey’s house and park themselves in a pup tent on the back lawn are a comic delight. So is the dog, but I’ll leave you to discover that for yourselves.
Y Is for Yesterday was published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons in 2017. It is available at Greenville Public Library.