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Sue Grafton’s new thriller takes her up to the letter W

Number 23 and counting. Top mystery author Sue Grafton has been publishing a series of alphabet novels featuring likable sleuth Kinsey Millhone since “A Is for Alibi”in 1982; This one, “W,” leaves her only three to go.

And yes, “X” could prove to be a problem (X is for X-ray, Xbox, Xtra, – who knows?), but in the meantime this latest is one of the strongest in the series. Like Millhone herself – she’s in her late 30s now – Grafton seems to have matured. Her detective is still smart and still tough but maybe not quite so flip. There’s more depth here than there used to be.

In “W,” Grafton injects pathos into her far-from-perfect characters. Hers is far from perfect world.

I grant you that this book does get a tad preachy at times, especially during a memorial service at the end.

It deals with the subject of the homeless, after all, who have their faults but are admirably sketched. I defy you to read some parts without a slight lump in your throat.

“What a pair: Pearl, round as a beach ball, and Felix, with his gummed-up braces and his white-boy dreads. Why did the sight of them make me want to weep?” Kinsey wonders about her two main homeless characters.

Full disclosure time: I got a little teary-eyed, too.

What a cast of characters here.

The book tells the story of a shifty private eye found murdered near a bird refuge on the beach, his wallet stolen along with “his knock-off Rolex with a faux platinum band,” as well as a nameless drifter found dead just a little farther away and some months later.

Since we’re all mystery lovers par excellence and very, very clever, we know from the beginning that there is a connection, of course. But the solution is ingenious, even if it does depend ever so slightly on coincidence.

And along the way we meet a bunch of interesting people.

Some long-lost cousins of Kinsey, for instance, understandably irritated when our detective inherits half a million bucks from their homeless father – he’s the homeless guy, found dead on the beach. (Millhone doesn’t know him but her name is found on a slip of paper in his pocket.) And there’s a cat named Ed.

More disclosure: I don’t ordinarily enjoy reading about four-footed beings in suspense stories but I’ll cut this one some slack .

There’s even a former feckless suitor, the least believable person in the book. Not to mention the usual bunch who are always around – nonagenarian Henry, Kinsey’s friend; Henry’s brother William who can be a pain; and William’s wife, restaurateur Rosie, though the food she serves makes me uneasy.

“I’m interested in the psychology of crime,” Grafton has said, which puts her work in a totally different category from the skulking and mayhem found in most suspense novels today.

Very little blood here – nary a serial killer or terrorist to be found.

A little fraud, sure. A little blackmail and just plain meanness, too.

And not only is that a relief, it’s a pleasure.

W Is for Wasted

By Sue Grafton


485 pages, $28.95

Janice Okun is The News’ former food editor and a lifelong mystery reader.