R is For Ricochet by Sue Grafton
Rating: •• (Mildly Recommended)
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Fictional private detective Kinsey Millhone returns to sleuth again in Sue Grafton’s latest in the alphabet series, R is For Ricochet. While Kinsey comes across as tired and stale, a new character to the series, Reba Lafferty, provides some fresh dialogue, plot development and energy. That, and the recollection of good times past with Kinsey, may be reason enough for fans to pick up a copy of R is For Ricochet. Nonetheless, in reading this book, it felt far too often like I’d read this before. Grafton may need something else to spur this series along when it comes to the next letter or S will be for Swindle of anyone who buys a copy. Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter 3, pp. 22-31:
Saturday morning, I slept in until 8:00, showered, dressed, made a pot of coffee, and sat at my kitchen counter, where I ate my ritual bowl of cereal. Having washed both bowl and spoon, I returned to my stool and surveyed the place. I’m inordinately tidy and I’d just done a thorough housecleaning earlier in the week. My social calendar was unblemished and I knew I’d spend Saturday and Sunday alone as I did most weekends. Usually this doesn’t bother me, but today I felt an unsettling sensation. I was bored. I was so desperate for something to do, I thought about returning to the office to set up the files for another case I’d taken on. Unfortunately, my office bungalow is depressing and I wasn’t motivated to spend another minute at my desk. Which left me to do what? Damned if I knew. In a moment of panic, I realized I didn’t even have a book to read. I was on the verge of leaving for the bookstore to stock up on paperbacks when my telephone rang.
“Hi, Kinsey. This is Vera. I’m glad I caught you. You have a minute?”
“Of course. I was on my way out, but it’s nothing pressing,” I said. Vera Lipton had been a colleague of mine at California Fidelity Insurance, where I spent six years investigating arson and wrongful-death claims. She was the claims manager while I worked as an independent contractor. She had since left the business, married a doctor, and settled into life as a full-time mom. I’d seen her briefly in April with her husband, a physician named Neil Hess. Also in tow was a rowdy golden retriever pup, and her eighteen-month-old son, whose name I forgot to ask. She was massively pregnant and due to deliver her second child within days, judging by her belly. I said, “Tell me about the baby. You looked ready to drop one the day I saw you at the beach.”
“No kidding. I was sway-backed as a mule. I had shooting pains in both legs, and the baby’s head pressing on my bladder made me dribble in my pants. I went into labor that night and Meg was born the next afternoon. Listen, the reason I called, we’d love to have you over. We never see you these days.”
“Sounds good to me. Give me a toot and we’ll set something up.”
There was a pause. “That’s what I’m doing. I just invited you to conic over and have a drink with us. We’re putting some people together for a barbecue this afternoon.”
“Really? What time?”
“Four o’clock. I know it’s short notice, but I’m hoping you’re free.”
“As it happens, I am. What’s the occasion?”
Vera laughed. “No occasion. I just thought it’d he nice. We’ve invited a few neighbors. Strictly casual and low-key. If you have a pencil handy, I’ll give you the address. Why don’t you plan to be here a little early and we can catch up.”
I took down the information, not at all convinced. Why would she call like this out of the blue? “Vera, are you sure you’re not up to Something? I don’t mean to sound rude, but we chatted for five minutes in April. Before that, there was a gap of four years. Don’t get me wrong. I’d be happy to see you. but it does seem odd.”
I said, “What,” not even bothering to make a question of the word.
“Okay, I’ll level with you. but you have to promise you won’t scream.”
“I’m listening. but this is making my stomach hurt.”
“Neil’s younger brother, Owen, is in town for the weekend. We thought you should meet him.
“Kinsey. occasionally men and women are introduced to each other, or haven’t you heard?”
“Like a blind date.’
“It’s not a blind date. It’s drinks and a few snacks. There’ll be tolls of other people so it’s not like you Ii be stuck with him one-on-one. We’ll sit on the back deck. Cheez Whiz and crackers. If you like him, that’s swell. If you don’t, no big deal.”
“The last time you fixed me up. it was with Neil,” I said.
“My point exactly. Look how that turned out.”
I was silent for a moment. “What’s he like?”
“Will, aside from the fact that he walks with his knuckles barely grazing the floor, he seems to be okay. Look, I’ll have him fill out an application. You can do a background check. Just be here at three-thirty. I’m wearing my only pair of jeans that haven’t been split up the back.”
She hung up while 1 was saying. “But. . .“
I listened to the dial tone in a state of despair. I could see now I was being penalized for shirking my job. I should have gone in to work. The Universe keeps track of our sins and exacts devious and repugnant punishments, like dates with unknown men. I went up the spiral staircase and opened my closet so I could stare at my clothes. Here’s what I saw: My black all-purpose dress—which is the only dress I own, good for funerals and other somber occasions, not suitable for meeting guys, unless they’re already dead. Three pairs of jeans, a denim vest, one short skirt, and the new tweed blazer I bought when I had lunch with my cousin, Tasha, eighteen months before. Also, an olive-green cocktail dress I’d forgotten about, given to me by a woman who was later blown to bits. In addition, there were castoffs from Vera, including a pair of black silk pants so long I had to roll ‘em up at the waist. If I wore those, she’d ask to have them back, thus forcing me to drive home essentially naked below the waist. Not that I thought harem pants would be suitable for a barbecue. I knew better than that. Shrugging, I opted for my usual jeans and turtleneck.
At 3:30 promptly I was ringing Vera’s doorbell. The address she’d given me was on the upper east side of town, in a neighborhood of older homes. Theirs was a ramshackle Victorian painted dark gray with white trim and an L-shaped wooden porch complete with froufrou along the rail. The front door had a stained-glass rose in the center that made Vera’s face look bright pink when she peered out at me. Behind her, the dog barked with excitement, eager to jump up and slobber on someone new. She opened the door, holding the dog by its collar to prevent its escape.
She said, “Don’t look so glum. You’ve been given a reprieve. I sent the guys out to buy Pampers and beer, so it’s just us for twenty minutes. Come on in.” Her hair was cropped short and streaked with blond. She still sported her glasses with wire frames and enormous pale blue lenses. Vera’s the type of woman who attracts admiring glances wherever she goes. Her figure was substantial, though she’d already dropped much of the weight she gained with Meg. She was barefoot, wearing tight jeans and an oversize tunic with short sleeves and a complicated cut to the top. All the toddler and baby toting had firmed her biceps.
She held the door for me, angling her body so the dog couldn’t lunge at me just yet. He’d doubled in size since I’d seen him on the beach. He didn’t seem like a mean mutt, but he was exuberant. She leaned close to his face, put a hand around his muzzle, and said, “No!” in a tone that had no particular effect. He seemed to like the attention and licked her in the mouth the first chance he got.
“This is Chase. Ignore him. He’ll settle down in a bit.”
I made an effort to ignore the dog while he pranced around, barking happily, and then snagged the hem of my pant leg and began to tug. He emitted a puppy growl, his feet braced on the hall carpet so he could rip my jeans to shreds. I stood there, captive, and said, “Gee, this is fun. Vera. I’m so glad I came.”
She gave me a look, but let the sarcasm pass. She snagged the dog by the collar and dragged him toward the kitchen while I followed. The foyer ceiling was high with a set of stairs to the right, the living room on the left. A short hall led straight to the kitchen across the back. The passage was the usual land mine of wooden blocks, plastic toy parts and abandoned doggie bones. She shoved Chase into a kennel the size of a steamer trunk. This didn’t dismay the dog, but I felt guilty nonetheless. He placed a baleful eye to one of the air vents in the kennel and stared at me with hope.
The kitchen was large and 1 could see a wide deck accessible through a set of French doors. The cabinets were dark cherry, the counters dark green marble, with a six-burner stove-top built into a central island. Both the baby and Vera’s son, whom she introduced as Peter, were already bathed and dressed for bed. Near the kitchen sink, a woman in a pale blue uniform was piping a star of yellow filling into each of a dozen hard-boiled egg halves.
“This is Mavis,” Vera said. “She and Dirk are helping, to save the wear and tear on me. I’ve got a babysitter on her way.”
I murmured greetings and Mavis smiled in response, hardly pausing as she squeezed the filling from a pastry bag. Parsley had been tucked around the platter. On the counter nearby there were two baking sheets of canapes ready for the oven and two other serving platters, one arranged with fresh cut vegetables and the other an assortment of imported cheeses interspersed with grapes. So much for Cheez Whiz—which I personally adored, being a person of low tastes. This party had clearly been in the works for weeks. I now suspected the designated blind date had come down with the flu and I’d been elected to take her place. . . a B-list substitute.
Dirk, in dress pants and a short white jacket, was working near the walk-in pantry where he’d set up a temporary bar with a variety of glasses, an ice bucket, and an impressive row of wine and liquor bottles.
“How many are you expecting?”
“Twenty-five or so. This is strictly last minute so a lot of people couldn’t make it.”
“I’m still off the booze because of Twinkletoes here.”
The baby, Meg, was strapped in an infant seat in the middle of the kitchen table, looking around with a vague expression of satisfaction. Peter, aged twenty-one months, had been secured in a high chair. His tray was littered with Cheerios and green peas that he captured and ate when he wasn’t squishing them instead.
Vera said, “That’s not his dinner. It’s just to keep him occupied until the babysitter shows. Speaking of which, Dirk can fix you a drink while I take Peter upstairs.” She removed the tray from the high chair anti set it aside, then lifted the boy and set him on one hip. “I’ll be hack shortly. If Meg cries, it’s probably because she wants to be picked up.”
Vera disappeared clown the hall with Peter, heading for the stairs.
Dirk said, “What can I get for you?”
“Chardonnay’s fine. I’d appreciate that.”
I watched while he removed a bottle of Chardonnay from an ice tub behind him. He poured me a glass and added a cocktail napkin as he passed the wine across the makeshift bar.
Vera had set out Brie and thinly sliced French bread, bowls of nuts and green olives. I ate one, being careful not to crack my teeth on the pit. I was curious to tour the rest of the downstairs rooms, but I didn’t dare leave Meg. I had no idea what a baby her age was capable of doing while strapped in an infant seat. Could they hop in those things?
One end of the kitchen had been furnished with two sofas upholstered in a floral fabric, two coordinating chairs, a coffee table, and a television set built into an entertainment center that ran along the wall. Wineglass in hand, I circled the periphery, idly studying the silver-framed photos of family and friends. I couldn’t help wondering if one of the fellows pictured was Neil’s brother, Owen. I imagined him, like Neil, on the short side and probably dark-haired as well.
Behind me, Meg made a restless sound of the sort that suggested more to follow at twice the volume. I tended to my responsibilities, setting down my wineglass so 1 could free the child from her infant seat. I picked her up, so unprepared for how light she was 1 nearly flung her through the air. Her hair was dark and fine, her eyes a bright blue with lashes as delicate as feathers. She smelled like baby powder and maybe something fresh and brown in her pants. Amazingly, after staring at me briefly, she laid her face against my shoulder and began to gnaw on her fist. She squirmed and the little oinking sounds she made hinted at feeding urges I hoped wouldn’t erupt before her mother returned. I jiggled her a bit and that seemed to satisfy her temporarily.
I had now exhausted my vast fund of infant-care tricks.
I heard a manly trampling outside on the wooden deck. Neil opened the back door bearing a grocery sack bulky with disposable diapers. The guy who came in behind him carried two six-packs of bottled beer. Neil and I exchanged greetings and then he turned to his brother and said, “Kinsey Millhone. This is my brother, Owen.”
I said, “Hi.” The babe in my arms precluded anything in the way of handshakes.
He responded with hey-how-are-you—type things, talking over his shoulder while he delivered the beer into Dirk’s capable hands.
Neil set the sack on a kitchen stool and removed the package of disposable diapers. “Let me run these on up. You want me to take her?” lie asked, indicating Meg.
“This is fine,” I said, and surprisingly, it was. After Neil left, I peered down at her and discovered that she’d gone to asleep. “Oh, wow. I said, scarcely daring to breathe. I couldn’t tell if the ticking I heard was my biological clock or the delayed timing device on a bomb.
Dirk was in the process of making a margarita for Owen, ice clattering in the blender. With his attention occupied I had an opportunity to study him. He was tall, compared with his brother, over six feet while Neil topped out closer to my height at five-feet-seven. His hair was sandy, lightly dusted with gray. He was lean, an ectomorph, where Neil’s build was stocky. Blue eyes, white lashes, a good-size nose. He glanced over at me and I dropped my gaze discreetly to Meg. He wore chinos and a navy short-sleeved shirt that revealed the light downy hair along his forearms. His teeth were good and his smile seemed sincere. On a scale of 1 to 10—10 being Harrison Ford—I’d place him at 8, or maybe even 8 plus plus.
He moved to the counter where I was
standing and helped himself to a canape.
We chatted idly, exchanging the sort of uninspired questions and answers that
tend to pass between strangers. He told me he was visiting from
Eventually, Neil and Vera came downstairs. She took the baby and settled on the couch. Vera fiddled with her shirt, popped a boob out, and began to breast-feed while Owen and I made a point of looking somewhere else. Eventually several other couples arrived. There were introductions all around as each new twosome was incorporated. The kitchen was gradually taken up with guests, standing in small groups, some spilling into the hallway and out onto the deck. When the babysitter arrived, Vera took Meg upstairs and returned wearing a different shirt. The noise level rose. Owen and I were separated by the crowd, which was all right with me as I’d run out of things to say to him.
I made an effort to he friendly, chitchatting with any poor soul who caught my eye. Everyone seemed nice enough, but social gatherings are exhausting to someone of my introverted nature. I endured it as long as I could and then eased toward the foyer where I’d left my shoulder bag. Good manners dictated that I say thank you and goodbye to host and hostess, but neither were in sight and I thought i(d be expedient to tiptoe away without calling attention to my escape.
As I closed
the front door and made my way down the wooden porch stairs, I
caught sight of Cheney Phillips coming up the walk in a deep red silk shirt,
cream dress pants, and highly polished Italian loafers. Cheney was a local cop, working vice last I heard. I
tended to run into him at a
dive called the Caliente Café—also known as
He said, “Leaving so soon?”
“Hey, how are you? What are you doing here?”
He tilted his head. “I live next door.”
I followed his gaze to the house, another two-story Victorian that appeared to be a twin of the one I’d just left. Not many cops can afford the tab on a Santa Teresa residence of that size and vintage. “I thought you lived in Perdido.”
“I did. That’s where I grew up. My uncle died, leaving me a great whack of dough so I decided to invest it in real estate.” He was probably thirty-four, three years younger than I, with a lean face and a mop of dark curly hair, five-eight or so, and slim. He’d told me that his mother sold high—end real estate and his father was X. Phillips who owned the Bank of X. Phillips in Perdido, a town thirty miles to the south. He’d clearly been raised in an atmosphere of privilege.
“Nice house,’ I said.
“Thanks. I’m still getting settled or I’d offer you a tour.
“Maybe another time,” I said, wondering about his wife.
“What are you up to these days?
“Nothing much. A little this and that.”
“Why don’t you return to the party and have a drink with me? We should talk.”
I said. “Can’t. I have to he someplace and I’m late as it is.”
I waved, walking backward for a moment before I turned and headed to my car. Now why had I said that? I could have staved for a drink, but I couldn’t face another minute in that crowd. Too many people and too much chitchat.
I was home again by 6:15, relieved to be alone but feeling let down nonetheless. Given that I hadn’t wanted to meet Vera’s brother—in—law in the first place. I was disappointed—the blind date had turned out to be a bland date. Nice guy. no sparks, which was probably just as well. Sort of. It was entirely possible the regrets were attached to Cheney Phillips instead of Owen Hess, but I didn’t want to deal with that. What was the point?
I could swear that I read this entire chapter in an earlier Grafton book. It all seemed so familiar, and not in a good way. Kinsey fans will jump at reading R is for Ricochet. New readers may want to pick up elsewhere, or take a pass. Reading this book reminded me of watching a favorite series on television, even when the current episode is not particularly good. There’s always next week, so I look forward to S is for Something.
Steve Hopkins, September 25, 2004
ã 2004 Hopkins and Company, LLC
The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the October 2004 issue of Executive Times
URL for this review: http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/Books/R is For Ricochet.htm
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