Review: Sue Grafton's 'Y Is for Yesterday' a skillful next-to-last hurrah

Until then, enjoy Sue Grafton's entertaining, and next-to-last, Kinsey Millhone novel: Y Is for Yesterday.

When Sue Grafton published A Is for Alibi back in 1982, she didn't really anticipate that 35 years later she'd be closing in on the end of the alphabet with Y Is for Yesterday.

"I was cheeky enough to snag the alphabet," Grafton told me in a 2015 interview. "I had high hopes and no expectations, so it's all been a jolly surprise."

It has been a satisfying ride for her many readers as well — Grafton's novels about California private investigator Kinsey Millhone have regularly landed on bestseller lists. The lively, engrossing Y Is for Yesterday demonstrates that she hasn't lost her touch over the years.

Like its 24 predecessors, the novel is set in the 1980s. Grafton decided early on not to age Kinsey in real time, so the character has only aged about seven years, to 39, which makes her believable in a sometimes physically demanding job.

It also gives Grafton the opportunity to build up setting and characters with great '80s period details — mirrored walls! brown velour track suits! — and compels Kinsey to deploy telephone books, paper maps and personal interviews in her investigations rather than Google and smartphones.

Y Is for Yesterday picks up in 1989 just a few months after the end of the previous novel, tersely titled X. In that one, Kinsey almost died at the hands of a terrifying serial rapist and killer named Ned Lowe. She escaped, but so did he, and there's evidence he's still after her, leaving her on high alert in her daily life.

"Most of the time I didn't think about him at all, a defense mechanism, I'm sure," she tells us. "There were moments, though, when I pictured him with an unnerving clarity. Somewhere in the world, he was alive, and while that was the case, I'd be looking over my shoulder, wondering if he'd suddenly reappear. He was a man obsessed and I knew I'd never feel safe until he was dead and buried."

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That has not, however, stopped her from working. The novel opens with a prologue in 1979, with events that kicked off the case at the heart of Y Is for Yesterday. At a posh private school in Kinsey's hometown of Santa Teresa, a freshman student named Iris Lehmann, eager to get in with the cool kids, steals answers to an exam and offers them to a couple of older students. That impulse will lead to a secret sex tape, a shocking death and prison sentences for some of the privileged kids involved.

One of those kids, Fritz McCabe, was convicted of murder as a juvenile. Now, at 25, he has just been released from prison, and his parents hire Kinsey because that sex tape has resurfaced, along with a blackmail demand.

The four-minute tape was made by a group of five friends including Iris, who was 14 at the time, and goofy Fritz. He and another boy, a top student named Troy Rademaker, appear to rape Iris, who is passed out drunk, while an unseen student, Bayard Montgomery, films them and a sardonic boy named Austin Brown, seen briefly on camera dressed in a suit and tie, directs the video.

The tape was a factor in the murder; the victim, Sloan Stevens, was a friend of the other teens and Austin's ex-girlfriend. It went missing after her death, but now someone has found it and sent it, or a copy of it, to the McCabes, demanding $25,000 to keep it quiet. Lauren and Hollis McCabe insist they don't want the police involved, for fear Fritz could go back to jail. Fritz himself, ditzy as ever, doesn't seem to much care and is busy catching up on all the partying he missed while in prison.

Kinsey questions whether she really wants to take the case, which raises all sorts of moral questions as well as legal ones. "But," she tells us, "I was already hooked. The little terrier in my nature was busy chasing after the problem, throwing dirt up behind me as I dug my little hole. There was a rat down there somewhere and I would have it for my very own."

More rats than one. As she digs she finds that, although the tape seems like a disturbing record of rape, the participants she talks to — including Iris — insist it was a prank, a parody of porn, and that edited portions of the tape would show them joking about it.

One person involved, Austin, is not available for interview, since he disappeared after Sloan's murder and hasn't been heard from since. Yet he seems to be the key to, perhaps the instigator of, not only the tape but Sloan's death.

When Kinsey talks to Bayard, he says of Austin, "Thing is, all of us were a little bit in love with him. He was mean. He was unpredictable. We were all insecure and none of us knew how to handle him. If he smiled on you, you felt special and life was good. ... If he turned on you, you'd be stricken and you'd do anything to get back in his good graces."

Kinsey also discovers that, although the tape is supposed to be a deep dark secret, it seems half the population of Santa Teresa has seen it and even more know about it. Her theory about such phenomena: "That's because good news is usually too boring to repeat. The cold hard truth will fall on stony ground, whereas your all-around trashy rumor will flourish like a weed."

While Kinsey is sorting out the truth (and getting fired, then rehired by the McCabes), she's dealing with her fear of Ned — whose murderous rage erupts in an unexpected way — and the dramas of her daily life. Fans of the series will find many familiar faces, such as Kinsey's ex-squeeze, married cop Jonah Robb (who is having quite a little adventure of his own) and her courtly, 89-year-old landlord, Henry, who to Kinsey's annoyance has welcomed a homeless couple to camp in their backyard. She tolerates the inaptly named Lucky and his Rottweiler-mastiff mix dog, Killer, but Lucky's girlfriend, Pearl, who's recovering from a broken hip, is the target of gym rat Kinsey's snark about her "probably size 22 blue jeans and an XXXL sweatshirt." By the time the novel draws to a close, though, Kinsey will see the merit in Pearl's pounds.

Grafton is in sure command of Kinsey's wise-cracking but warm voice and of a many-layered plot that moves back and forth over events of a decade. Y Is For Yesterday might make you wish the alphabet had a few more letters.

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.