A journeyman in the annals of private eye lit, Sue Grafton is plowing through the alphabet as assuredly as Marlowe plowed through leggy blonds. In "M is for Malice" (according to the flyleaf, it also stands for money, memories and -- shiver -- murder), Grafton taps into her usual brew of family resentments, simmering jealousies, Santa Ana winds and surfside jogging.
Grafton's hero and doppelganger, Kinsey Millhone, ages more slowly than the rest of us: a dewy 32 when the series began 15 years ago, she's now a still-spry 35 -- although in Zeitgeist years she's keeping pace. Twice-divorced and saddled with a series of Men Who Won't Commit, she's suddenly fretting about love and loss, specifically the comings and goings of one Robert Dietz, who bruised her heart a number of consonants ago. Here's Kinsey circa '96, a veritable Venusian in the land of Mars: "This is hopeless," she says to Dietz. "I don't know why we even bother with this. You're addicted to wandering and I'm rooted in place. You can't stay and I can't leave because I love where I am. This is your biennial interlude and I'm here for the duration, which means I'm probably doomed to a lifetime of guys like you." "'Guys like me?' That's nice. What does that mean?" "Just what it says. Emotionally claustrophobic."
Later Kinsey asks herself, "How did I end up with a man like him?," and I wanted to shriek: California, baby, it's California! But actually, it's worse than that: it's just another signpost in the domesticization of the private eye. When even a cantankerous misanthrope like Kinsey gets misty over the idea of hearth and home, we know modern detective fiction is going the way of the 19th-century novel.
Which is not to say "M is for Malice" is a stodgy read. Kinsey uncorks little lightning bolts of personality, along with a pleasing patter about her profession of choice. And Grafton conjures a chewy, locked-room puzzle concerning four rich brothers, one of whom will take a nasty fall. I just wish Kinsey had spent more time in the gravel pit the boys have inherited, and less in the pit of loneliness otherwise known as relationship hell.