W is for Wasted

by Sue Grafton

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Last Updated on January 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1681

Author: Sue Grafton

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Publisher: Putnam (New York). 486 pp.

Type of work: Novel

Time: 1988

Locale: Santa Teresa, California

W is for Wasted is the twenty-third novel in Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone Mysteries series of "alphabet mysteries." Millhone investigates two seemingly unrelated deaths that cause her to examine her own family's history and to explore the homeless culture in Santa Teresa, California.

Sue Grafton has become one of the best-known modern mystery novelists thanks to the success of her Kate Millhone Mysteries series, beginning in 1982 with the publication of A is for Alibi. The series borrows from and reflects the works of great mystery writers but is modernized with a strong and unique female lead in private investigator Kinsey Millhone. Grafton began the series, which is also known as the Alphabet series, with the premise that she would write a book for each letter of the alphabet, and she has stuck to this goal, producing twenty-three books with the publication of W is for Wasted.

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Grafton's novels are set during the 1980s in the fictional California town of Santa Teresa, which is based loosely on Santa Barbara. Although over thirty years have passed in the real world since readers were first introduced to Kinsey Millhone, less than a decade has gone by for Millhone and her quaint yet murder-ridden Santa Teresa. W is for Wasted is set in 1988, with detective Millhone between paying jobs and struggling to fill the personal void in her life.

Grafton's choice to retain the time period throughout her series rather than allow her detective to experience and react to the changing of the times has become more interesting over the years that Grafton has been publishing the series. For readers encountering A is for Alibi in 1982, the setting and surroundings were more or less contemporary, but 1980s California has gradually become a vintage landscape set amidst a culture that no longer exists. Interestingly, this has transformed Grafton into a writer of historical rather than contemporary fiction, as the she must be careful to keep her setting and surroundings true to the period, even as the world has shifted. In W is for Wasted, Grafton again carefully crafts the eighties era into her story through her descriptions of technology, models of cars, clothing styles, and the cost of everything from sandwiches to cigarettes (which apparently cost about $1.09 per pack in 1988 Santa Teresa). In a time before the importance of the Internet and the widespread use of cell phones, Millhone still fills in index cards with notes about her cases, and she visits the library to conduct research. The reader is struck by the cultural references that seem painfully slow by modern standards. In addition, the 1980s setting has provided the author with opportunities for social commentary by allowing her to occasionally bring in characters or conversations that reflect on the culture of that era, such as ruthless industrialism or Reaganomics.

Societal reflection is not the focus in most of Grafton's books, but W is for Wasted has a distinct element of social commentary as Millhone becomes immersed in the homeless culture of Santa Teresa. Searching for clues to the death of an apparently homeless John Doe who is discovered on the beach, Millhone's first step is to locate and interview other homeless individuals who might have seen or known the man later revealed to be Randy T. "Terrance" Dace.

Millhone initially approaches the homeless community with some trepidation. "There's something edgy and unpredictable about those who loiter with no clear purpose, especially when alcohol is folded into the mix," Millhone says just before encountering a transient trio who become a focal point of the case. The three transients are Felix Beider, a man in his twenties; Pearl White, a middle-aged woman; and the elderly Daniel (Dandy) Singer. The choice of these three unlikely associates smacks of social commentary in itself and suggests a message that anyone can find themselves homeless, regardless of their starting point in life. Rather predictably, Millhone and others involved in the case make statements throughout the book that reveal Grafton's position on the complex issue of homelessness. For instance, Millhone expresses at one point the belief that if there is a solution to the problem of homelessness, she doesn't know what it would be. In a speech delivered by Kinsey in the novel's epilogue, Grafton writes, "The homeless do not want our pity, nor do they deserve our scorn."

Family and loneliness are other focal subjects in W is for Wasted. As readers of the series have learned, Millhone's parents were killed in a car accident when she was only five years old, and following the death of her Aunt Gin when Kinsey was in her twenties, she has lived her life as a veritable orphan and without close family. Millhone's closest friends, such as her elderly landlord Henry Pitts and local tavern owner Rosie (who married Pitt's brother William in a previous novel), have become her family. She also recently learned of the existence of an extended family, the "Kinsey Clan," which is explored in several of the books beginning with the 1996 M is for Malice and continues as a minor plot arc. Millhone has come to see her orphan status as a pillar of her personality, so the discovery of any new family ties provides an opportunity for self-reflection and evaluation.

Kinsey Millhone's difficulty in sustaining relationships has been a recurring theme in Grafton's series but seems to be more of a major theme in this novel. One of Millhone's previous lovers, private investigator Robert Dietz, makes a brief return to her life about midway through the novel and provides further opportunity for Millhone to reflect on her romantic history. "My lifelong 'goodbye' experiences lean toward finality and pain," Millhone says of her separation from Dietz. Grafton plays up the potential for Kinsey rekindling this particular flame and developing a long-term relationship with Dietz or perhaps just a brief sexual rendezvous.

Sue Grafton is one of the most prominent and successful mystery novelists in the United States, best known for her Kinsey Millhone Mysteries series. In 2009, Grafton won the Grand Master Award from the New York–based Mystery Writers of America.

While most of the early Kinsey Millhone stories were told entirely in a first-person narrative from Millhone's perspective, Grafton has taken to adding additional perspectives in some of her more recent novels. In W is for Wasted, for instance, Grafton writes several chapters from the perspective of private investigator Pete Wolinsky, and given the character's background story, it is an interesting choice and a sharp departure from the realism of Grafton's standard perspective in the Millhone mysteries. Some critics have objected to this recent technique, arguing that the stories are more focused and interesting when told entirely from Millhone's perspective and allow readers to solve the case along with her. The Wolinsky chapters as well as Grafton's other experiments in different points of view add subtle nuances to the plot, however, and grant readers additional insights into facets of the story that Millhone (and the reader) could never learn through investigation alone. These brief forays aside, the story is primarily told from Millhone's perspective and her occasionally gruff and largely pessimistic voice is still center stage through the unfolding drama.

Millhone's character is in many ways a reflection of the classic detective model: independent and world-weary but with a moral streak that guides her decisions and actions. "Let me say that I believe in law and order, loyalty, and patriotism—old-fashioned values that might seem woefully out of date," Millhone says at the beginning of the novel, explaining herself to any potential readers new to her adventures and her ethics.

Reviews of W is for Wasted have been positive, with most critics calling the novel a fitting and interesting addition to the series. One reviewer has praised Grafton for her ability to create realistic and distinct characters and for clearly navigating a complex plot arc. Another has pointed out Grafton's flare for creating richly wrought detail in her descriptive passages. The primary complaint from critics, however, is the "preachy" quality of Grafton's approach to the topic of homelessness and the unlikely connections between characters that Grafton uses to bring the strands of her plot together. These detractions aside, Grafton is praised for her commitment to providing fresh and interesting stories in a series that has focused on the same setting and many of the same characters in each book.

Since A is for Alibi, Grafton has published a new addition to the series every year, and Kinsey Millhone has become one of crime drama's most familiar figures. As a result, Grafton has been honored as one of the premier writers of modern mystery fiction. While some may feel that Millhone and the general feel of Grafton's mysteries draw upon clichés of the genre, in some sense these elements reflect Grafton's love of the genre and her efforts to honor the writers who have inspired her. Compared to other Millhone novels, W is for Wasted moves at a relatively leisurely pace and is more personal, with Millhone spending more time than usual pondering her own life in relation to the case she is working on. While many familiar characters have bit parts and appearances, Millhone's investigation of homelessness and later the pharmaceutical industry take center stage and bring her into unfamiliar territory. Grafton does not telegraph her ending, though the story has less of a twist than some of the other books. Rather than focusing on an explosive finale, W is for Wasted builds slowly through a series of small revelations, all of which draw together in a poignant, albeit satisfying, ending.

Review Sources

  • Rev. of W is for Wasted, by Sue Grafton. Kirkus Reviews 1 Aug. 2013:190. Print.
  • Rev. of W is for Wasted, by Sue Grafton. Publishers Weekly 7 Aug. 2013: 65. Print.
  • Strafford, Jay. Rev. of W is for Wasted, by Sue Grafton. Richmond Times-Dispatch. BH Media Group, 8 Sept. 2013. Web. 9 Jan. 2014.
  • Stasio, Marilyn. "Down and Out: Sue Grafton's 'W is for Wasted,' and More." New York Times. New York Times, 20 Sept. 2013. Web. 9 Jan. 2014.

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