O Is for Outlaw

by Sue Grafton

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1200

This quotation from early in the novel sets the scene for one of its central concerns:

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Our recollection of the past is not simply distorted by our faulty perception of events remembered but skewed by those forgotten. The memory is like orbiting twin stars, one visible, one dark, the trajectory of what's evident forever affected by the gravity of what's concealed.

O Is for Outlaw handles the concept of distorted memories primarily through the personal story of Millhone. The mystery in which she is engaged pertains to her personal history and requires a reappraisal of the behavior of her first ex-husband, whom she discovers she judged wrongly. What she reveals in her investigation of his shooting reverses what she had thought about him: now she finds he was "guilty of infidelity, innocent of manslaughter." Such a reappraisal touches upon the novel's concern with the dislocation between appearances and reality. Millhone had judged her ex-husband, Mickey Magruder, upon circumstantial evidence when he was accused of manslaughter. The fact that he had been a cop who "chafed at the limitations set by policy and, on a broader level, at legal restrictions he felt interfered with his effectiveness", and that he had asked Millhone to provide him with an alibi for some crucial hours for which he could not account, made her leave him. Millhone has lived with the version of the past that she created, and her misjudgement, for fifteen years.

Echoing this plot-centric revision of the past, the effects of the Vietnam War on its participants reverberates throughout the novel, mostly in the form of physical damage. The character in whose death Magruder was implicated was a veteran, with a metal plate in his head as a result of the war. This contributes, ultimately, to his death in the year following its end. Living with a physical reminder of the war is also central to another character's life—Eric Hightower, who lost both legs. He presently runs a successful business manufacturing equipment for people with disabilities. Interestingly, it is Hightower's disability, which can be seen, that is integrated into society successfully while that which cannot be seen, the victim Benny Quintero's, is excised, a reversal that rehearses the surface/ reality dichotomy running through detective fiction as a genre. This dichotomy is made much more explicit between Hightower and Mark Bethel, the Vietnam veteran whose sins during the War and subsequent to it are exposed during the course of the novel. As an open and visible totem of the past, Hightower is embraced by society, but Bethel and his secrets are not. Bethel does not suffer from a physical handicap as a result of the War and his corruption is represented as an individual matter, not resulting from any social factors. His character is the epitome of the split between surface and reality, for he presents himself as the upright figure running for public office, concerned, in fact, with obtaining a fair deal for Vietnam veterans, while his actions attempt to conceal his own dishonorable behavior. In its representation of the veterans, the novel does not question the involvement of the United States in Vietnam—the subject of contemporary debate—but upholds the conservative version of events of the past.

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The version of the past that Millhone had created for herself on a personal level, how- ever, is overturned by her discoveries. As she gradually realizes the error of her judgement, she becomes concerned that she set right that misjudgement by finding the person who shot Magruder, reinforcing the sense of justice and personal integrity which courses through the central protagonist: "if I'd been an unwitting accomplice to his [Magruder's] downfall, I needed to own up to it and get square with him." This sense of attaining justice on a personal level is intertwined with the overarching concerns of the detective novel genre, and finds its literalization in the final scene where the perpetrator is brought to an end in a rather Biblical "eye for an eye" fashion. In this sense, forms of justice and its very nature come under scrutiny. For, one way the novel does question conservative values is in the violent and unlawful manner with which the criminal, Bethel, is dispatched by another criminal, Marlin Duffy, with whom Millhone has displayed some empathy, sharing a few beers with him on one occasion:

Often I identified with guys like him. As crude as he was with his racist comments, his tortured grammar, and his attitude toward crime, I understood his yearning. How liberating it was when you defied authority, flaunted convention, ignoring ordinary standards of moral decency. I knew my own ambivalence.

At the end of the novel, Duffy avenges the death of his brother by killing Bethel, saving Millhone from danger. Although Duffy is imprisoned, his previous description of spells in jail is recalled: "with its volleyball, indoor tawlits [sic], and color television sets." Compared to Duffy's existence outside of jail, currently living in a shed in a garden center with no basic facilities, these conditions are fine. Additionally, he has described jail as "kind of like a timeout till I get my head on straight." The implication is that Bethel was the worse of these two criminals and that imprisonment might have been too good for him. Importantly, Duffy, in contrast to Bethel, has never attempted to conceal what he is. This is evident in an early conversation with Millhone:

"Okay, so maybe sometimes I do something bad, but it's nothing terrible."

"You never killed anyone."

"That's right. I never robbed nobody. Never used a gun . . . except the once. I never done drugs, I never messed with women didn't want to mess with me, and I never laid a hand on any kids. Plus I never done a single day of federal time. It's all city and county, mostly ninety-day horseshit. Criminal recklessness."

Duffy, therefore, lives by his own rules, which he considers never seriously harm anyone and it is this "outlaw" quality with which Millhone can empathize, as her response to Duffy here demonstrates: "It's fun breakin' rules. Makes you feel free," he tells her. She replies by saying "I can relate to that." Millhone relates her tendency to break small rules to Duffy in the following:

I was split down the middle, my good angel sitting on one shoulder, Lucifer perched on the other. Duffy's struggle was the same, and while he leaned in one direction, I usually leaned in the other, searching for justice in the heart of anarchy. This was the bottom line as far as I was concerned: If the bad guys don't play by the rules, why should the good guys have to?

While justice is found in the heart of anarchy in Duffy's murder of his brother's killer, the question is raised as to who is the "outlaw" of the title. For there are many characters who exist outside of the law in varying degrees. Magruder and Millhone inhabit a space of occasional transgressions of the law, whereas Duffy does this in a more serious manner and Bethel, the most outwardly upright of these characters is shown to be the most inwardly corrupt. Justice, likewise, is seen to exist in degrees.

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