Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


S Is For Silence by Sue Grafton




(Mildly Recommended)




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S is also for “slow,” and many mystery fans will be bored with the pace of the 19th and latest installment in Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series, S Is For Silence. While characters are presented gradually, and events are viewed from multiple perspectives and flashbacks, the tension fares to generate excitement, and by the time the climax arrives, few readers are likely to care much. Rabid fans of this series will eat up the latest installment and wait patiently for the next one. I found that while it was nice to visit with Kinsey again, there are far better mystery writers producing better books. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 4, pp. 32-39:


Daisy took an alternate route on our return to Santa Maria, swinging north in a wide loop that, according to the map, encompassed the townships of Beatty and Poe. In point of fact, I didn’t see either one. I squinted, saying, “Where’s Poe? The map says it’s right here close to a little town called Beatty.”


“I think those are company names. Poe, I don’t know about, but there’s a Beatty Oil and Natural Gas. If there were ever towns in those spots, they might’ve left the names on the map so the area won’t seem so desolate.”


The surrounding countryside was flat, entirely given over to agri­culture: fields of lettuce, sugar beets, and beans as far as the eye could see. The air smelled of celery. Bright blue port-o-potties stood like sentinels along the road. Cars were parked along the berm adjacent to some fields. Wooden crates were stacked high on flatbed trucks, and migrant farmworkers bent above the rows, harvesting a crop I didn’t recognize on sight, flying by as we were at sixty miles an hour. The road made a wide curve north. Oil rigs dotted the land and in one sec­tion, there was a small refinery that threw off an odor reminiscent of burning tires. In sections, I could see a line of stationary boxcars that must have stretched for a quarter of a mile.


I looked past her through the driver’s-side window. Tucked in a stand of pines, a grand old stone-and-stucco house sat close to the road, abandoned to all appearances. The architecture had elements of English Tudor with a touch of Swiss chalet thrown in, the whole of it incongruous in the midst of tilled and untilled fields. The second story was half-limbered with three gables punctuating the roofline. “What the heck is that?”


Daisy slowed. “That’s why we came this way. Tannie and her brother, Steve, inherited the house and three hundred acres of farmland, some of which they lease out.”


Two massive stone chimneys bracketed the house on each end. The narrow third-story windows suggested rooms reserved for household servants. A magnificent oak had been planted at one corner of the house, probably ninety years before, and now overshadowed the en­trance. Across the road, there was empty acreage.


The yard was completely overgrown. Weeds had proliferated and once decorative shrubs were close to eight feet high, obscuring the ground-floor windows. Where there had been a gracious approach, de­fined by boxwoods on both sides of a wide brick path, the passage was flow close to impenetrable. Someone was using a small tractor to clear the overgrowth near the road, piling it in a mound. The brush closer to the house would probably have to be hacked away by hand. Daunting, I thought.


“Catch the back side,” she said as we passed.


I shifted in my seat and glanced over my shoulder, looking at the house from another angle. A wide dirt-and-gravel lane, probably the original driveway, now doubled as a frontage road with a service road splitting off to the right. I was guessing that the service road inter­sected one of the old county roads that was rendered obsolete once New Cut Road went in.


On the back side of the house, most of the third-story windows in the rear were missing, the frames and timbers charred black from a fire that had eaten half the roof. There was something painful in the sight and I could feel myself wince. “How’d that happen?”


“Vagrants. This was a year ago. Now there’s a raging debate about what to do with the place.”


“Why was the house built so close to the road?”


“Actually, it wasn’t. The house used to sit dead center on the land, but then the new road was cut through. The grandparents must have needed cash, because they sold off a big chunk, maybe half of what they owned. The ink wasn’t dry on the check before negotiations were under way for a housing tract that never went in. Talk about local pol­itics. Now Tannie’s in a quandary, trying to decide whether to restore the house or tear it down and build in a better location. Her brother thinks they should sell the property while they have the chance. Right now, the market’s good, but Steve’s one of those guys who’s always pre­dicting doom and gloom, so they’ve been butting heads. She’ll have to buy him out if she decides to hang on. She’s hired a couple of guys to help her clear brush on her days off. The county’s been testy about the fire hazard, given last year’s burn.”


“Does she want to farm the land?”


“I doubt it. Maybe she plans to open a B-and-B. You’d have to ask her.”


“Amazing.” I could feel the shift in my perception of Tannie Ott­weiler. I’d pictured her barely making ends meet on a bartender’s salary, never guessing she was a land baroness. “I take it she’s think­ing about moving up here.”


“That’s her hope. She’s been driving up Thursdays and Fridays, so if she’s here again this week maybe the three of us could have lunch.”


“Sounds great.”


There was a silence that lasted fifteen miles. Daisy was commu­nicative in small doses, but she seemed to feel no obligation to chat­ter full-time, which suited me fine.


“So what’s your story?” she asked, finally.




“You’ve been asking questions about me. Fair is fair.”


I didn’t like this part, where I was forced to pony up. As usual, I re­duced my past to its basic elements. I didn’t want sympathy and I didn’t want additional questions. In any version I told, the ending was the same and I was bored with the recitation. “My parents were killed in a car wreck when I was five. I was raised by a maiden aunt, who didn’t parent all that well.”


She waited to see if I’d go on. “Are you married?”


“Not now, but I was. Twice, which seems like plenty.


“I’ve got four divorces to your two so I guess I’m more optimistic.”


“Or maybe slower to learn.”


That netted me a smile, but not much of one.




When we got back to Daisy’s house, I picked up my car and drove the hour back to Santa Teresa, returning to my office, where I worked for the balance of the afternoon. I took care of the phone messages that had accumulated in my absence and then sat down and read the news­paper accounts about Violet in the weeks following her vanishing act. The initial item about the missing woman didn’t appear until the eighth of July, Wednesday of the following week. The article was brief, indi­cating that the public’s help was being sought in the disappearance of Violet Sullivan, last seen on Saturday, July 4, when she’d left to join her husband at a park in Silas, California, nine miles from her home in Serena Station. She was believed to have been driving a violet-gray two-door Chevrolet Bel Air coupe, with the dealer’s sticker displayed on the windshield. Anyone with information was encouraged to con­tact Sergeant Tim Schaefer at the Santa Teresa County Sheriff’s De­partment. The telephone number for the north county substation was listed.


Daisy had clipped two more articles, but there was little additional information. There were references to Violet’s having money, but no dollar amount had been confirmed. A bank manager in Santa Teresa had called the sheriff’s department to report that Violet Sullivan had arrived at the Santa Teresa Savings and Loan early in the afternoon on Wednesday, July 1. She’d spoken first to him, presenting her key and asking for access to her safe deposit box. He was already late for lunch so he’d turned her over to one of the tellers, a Mrs. Fitzroy, who’d dealt with Mrs. Sullivan previously and recognized her on sight. After Mrs. Sullivan signed in, Mrs. Fitzroy verified her signature and accompa­nied her into the vault, where she was given her box and shown into a small cubicle. She returned the box some minutes later. Neither the teller nor the bank manager had any idea what was in the box or whether Violet Sullivan had removed the contents.


In a third article, which ran on July 15, the county sheriff’s depart­ment’s public relations officer stated they were interviewing Foley Sullivan, the missing woman’s husband. He was not considered a sus­pect, but was a “person of interest.” According to Foley Sullivan’s ac­count, he’d stopped off to have a beer after the fireworks ended at 9:30. He got home a short time later and saw the family car was gone. He assumed that he and his wife had missed each other at the park and that she’d arrive shortly. He admitted to being mildly intoxicated and claimed he’d gone straight to bed. It wasn’t until his daughter woke him at 8:00 the next morning that he realized his wife had failed to return. Anyone with information, etc.


Occasionally, in the years since then, feature articles had been writ­ten about the case—puff pieces in the main. The tone was meant to be hard-hitting but the coverage was superficial. The same basic facts were spun out and embellished with little in the way of revelation. As nearly as I could tell, the subject had never been tackled in any sys­tematic way. Violet’s uncertain fate had elevated her to the status of a minor celebrity, but only in the small farming community where she had lived. No one outside the area seemed to take much interest. There was a black-and-white photograph of her and a separate photo of the car—not the identical vehicle, of course, but a similar make and model.


The car caught my attention and I read that part twice. On Friday, July 3, 1953, Foley Sullivan had filled out the loan papers on a pur­chase price of $2,145. Since the vehicle was never seen again, he’d been compelled to make payments for the next thirty-six months until the terms were satisfied. Title had never been registered. Violet Sulli­van’s driver’s license had expired in June of 1955, and she’d made no application for renewal.


What struck me as curious was that Daisy had described her father as close to a deadbeat, so I couldn’t understand why he’d continued paying for the car. How perverse to have to go on forking out the dough for a vehicle your wife may or may not have used in running off with another man. Since there was no way the dealer could repossess the car, Foley was stuck. I couldn’t understand why he cared, one way or the other, whether the dealer sued him for the balance or turned him over to a collection agency. Big deal. His credit was already shot, so what was one more debt? I put the question in a drawer at the back of my mind, hoping an answer would be sitting there the next time I looked.


At 5:00 P.M. I locked the office and went home. My studio apartment is located on a side street a block from the beach. My landlord, Henry, had converted the space from a single-car garage to a rental unit, attached to his own house by a glass-enclosed breezeway. I’ve been liv­ing there quite happily for the past seven years. Henry’s the only man I know whom I’d be willing to marry if (and only if) we weren’t sepa­rated by a fifty-year age difference. It’s tough when the perfect man in your life is an octogenarian. . . though a young eighty-seven years old. Henry’s trim, handsome, smart, white-haired, blue-eyed, and active. I can go on in this manner, reciting his many virtues, but you probably get the point.


I parked and passed through the squeaky gate that announces my arrival. I went around to the rear and let myself into my apartment, where I wrestled with my conscience briefly, and then changed into my running clothes and did a three-mile jog along the beach. Home again forty minutes later, I found a message from Cheney Phillips waiting on my machine. He proposed a quick bite of supper and said unless he heard otherwise, he’d meet me at Rosie’s close to 7:00. I showered and got back into my jeans.




“Well, it’s an interesting proposition. I’ll give you that,” Cheney said when I’d laid it out to him. Rosie had taken our order, asking us what we wanted, and then writing down what she’d already decided to serve—an unpronounceable dish that she pointed to on the menu. This turned out to be a beef-and-pork stew with more sour cream than flavor, so we’d spent a few minutes surreptitiously adding salt and enough pepper to make our eyes sting. Rosie’s cooking is usually tasty, so neither of us could figure out what was going on with her. Cheney was drinking beer and I was drinking bad white wine, which is all she serves.


“You know what’s hanging me up?” I asked. “Tell.”


“The thought of failing.”


“There are worse things.”


“Name one.”


“Root canal. IRS audit. Terminal disease.”


“But at least those things don’t impact anyone else. I don’t want to take Daisy’s money if I can’t deliver anything, and what are the odds?”


“She’s a grownup. She says this is what she wants. Do you have any reason to doubt her sincerity?”




“So why don’t you put a cap on the money end?”


“I did that. It doesn’t seem to help.”


“You’ll do fine. All you can do is give it your best shot.”


S Is For Silence brings new dimensions that I can’t recall Grafton using in prior books. While set in chronological sequence following the time of R Is For Richochet, 1987, the crime occurred in 1953, and there are many chapters that return to that time. Grafton does a great job at ensuring accurate description of time periods and that will please many readers. For Millhone fans and those who have to read a whole series, S Is For Silence will bring pleasure. For other readers, there are better mysteries elsewhere.


Steve Hopkins, February 23, 2006



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 in the March 2006 issue of Executive Times


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