Sue Grafton’s W Is for Wasted
is one of a series of novels covering the tales and woes of private investigator Kinsey Millhone. Grafton’s impressive series of lady detective novels has been around for thirty years, and the well-loved author shows no signs of slowing down. While some might assume that Grafton’s protagonist has aged in time with the series, the novels only cover six years of her life, spanning the time frame between 1982 and 1988. This quotidian detail might seem arduous to some, but it speaks volumes about Grafton’s ability to craft a well-rounded character in an age when who-done-it novels seem to progress at the speed of light. The series covers a myriad of life experiences, some near death and others as mundane as the days and weeks between Kinsey’s cases.
The narrative is set in Santa Teresa, a small fictional town near the California coast where Kinsey lives and spends time with her elderly landlord. The story, however, takes place in the very real town of Bakersfield. There is also a fair amount of speculation around the novel’s time period. Why the ’80s? Especially since Kinsey Millhone is not your typical ’80s girl. She is a woman out of time, but while the period doesn’t exactly fit the character, it does avoid the fast-paced twenty-first-century culture that very easily could have choked the life out of the book.
When the novel begins, Kinsey is thirty-eight and not particularly fond of homeless people. She has a low tolerance for shiftlessness and able-bodied people who cannot (or choose not) to take care of themselves. She says, “I could understand the needs of the infirm and the mentally ill. The able-bodied? Not so much.” It stands to reason then that Grafton throws her headfirst into a series of crimes that involve the very people she disdains.
The first is a former colleague who has been shot to death. The other is R. T. Dace, who is found dead on a beach. And it is here that Grafton tosses the first of many curveballs at the reader. Kinsey discovers a slip of paper with her name on it in the dead man’s pocket. She is further surprised to learn that Dace was sitting on a pretty hefty some of money, to the tune of about $600,000.
Kinsey then travels to Bakersfield to notify the family, who, much to her surprise, do not take the news very well. This may have more to do with the fact that they had been cut out of their deceased relative’s inheritance more than any feeling of genuine sorrow at the news. Returning home, Kinsey connects with two of Dace’s former friends. They cajole her into joining them on a trip to the homeless camp where Dace lived in order to scavenge some of his stuff. As it turns out, what he left behind provides valuable clues about both murders.
As a PI, Kinsey is more than accustomed to connecting with people close to the victims. It’s part of her job, a facet she has become particularly skilled at. However, Dace’s demise hits particularly close to home when she discovers a connection between the homeless man and her father. She is further shocked to discover that Dace has left the entire inheritance in her name. Grafton’s use of this common plot device is even more significant in Dace’s case, given the estrangement between he and his immediate family. In fact, from Kinsey’s perspective, the homeless people Dace had been consorting with seem to be of a particular breed. As one writer puts it, his homeless compadres “seem more like balanced libertarians,” drawing a surprisingly stark contrast between the shiftless riff-raff of Dace’s later life and the family he has shunned even in death.
The narrative’s compelling questions center not only on the murderer’s motive and identity, but also on Kinsey’s stake in the whole sordid mess. To help sort through it all, Grafton pulls in a few characters from Kinsey’s past, as well as fellow PI Pete Wolinsky. Pete is a less than reputable fellow and not very devoted to justice for all mankind. It’s fitting that Grafton includes him in a novel already inundated with more than a few shady characters.
But perhaps the most compelling aspect of the narrative is the insight the reader gains about Kinsey’s relatives and her interaction with them. There is also the connection with Dace to consider, and the fact that all that money is just sitting there, waiting for Kinsey to figure out what to do with it.
Although some readers might feel the author dwells too much on Kinsey’s personal life, the story is no doubt a cautionary tale about how tons of money can make a bad situation worse and how murder, for all its gruesomeness, is not always what it appears to be.