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Grafton's 'Silence' is less than golden

What, the zillions of Kinsey Millhone fans out there were probably wondering is the "S" in the next book was going to stand for? The 19th of author Sue Grafton's alphabetical series (She began with "A is for Alibi" in 1982) seemed to present all sorts of possibilities, mostly sensational.

"S" might stand for "shooting" or "suicide" or "suckered" -- or some other violent or unpleasant thing.

But now it turns out to be "Silence" -- this book is about a very long silence. In a cold case. Grafton's well-drawn detective Millhone investigates the disappearance of young mother Violet Sullivan, from her small town in her violet colored convertible -- she was quite a girl, our Violet -- way back in 1953.

So Grafton crafts her story differently this time. It's done in a serious of flashbacks so the reader knows more about the characters than Kinsey knows, an odd feeling. It's like being omniscient somehow. The 1953 vignettes alternate with the book's present time, 1987.

And while it's a mystery and a good one, it's also a psychological story. Kinsey takes the case on behalf of Violet's daughter, Daisy, who has been struggling all her life to find out what happened to her neglectful mother. She simply cannot face the fact that the women walked out on her, never to return. Who could?

But in actuality Daisy is not a likable character -- she's a self destructive whiner who has spent her adult life drinking, and having unsuccessful affairs with unsuitable men. Still, in a way, Kinsey Millhone identifies with her. After all, the detective, too, had a disastrous childhood, growing up as an orphan under the supervision of a difficult aunt.

There's good characterization here and with the help of the flashback technique, the suspense builds nicely. But not, sad to say, to a particularly surprising solution. The ending is satisfying but not much more than that. Maybe, given the frame of the story, it never could be.

The important personal relationships in the book also lead the reader feeling flat, heaving deep philosophical sighs. This particular little world ends not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Silence indeed.

Janice Okun is the News' Food Editor and a connoisseur of mystery novels.

S is for Silence

By Sue Grafton

Putnam

374 pages, $26.95

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