C is for Corpse … And for Cliche
This is a review of “C is for Corpse” by Sue Grafton. I am of course late to the party, since this book was published almost 40 years ago and is part of a beloved alphabetically titled detective series consisting of 25 installments. However, I only read this “C is for Corpse” the other day and I have only recently started to explore the world of private detective Kinsey Millhone and the fictional town of Santa Teresa, California. I am not sure that I have missed much.
I must admit at the outset that I have not read all of Sue Grafton’s books and the ones I have read have been out of order, so perhaps I have not gotten the complete Kinsey Millhone experience or fully understood the charm of Grafton’s character. However, I do not thing I have missed much. Grafton does a good job of re-describing the characters in each of her books so that you get a feel for their personalities and quirks even if you have not the rest of the series. In fact each book gives you enough background information about Millhone that it could be a stand-alone story. This is sometimes a bit tiresome. Although I appreciated being able enter the series with any of the books, Kinsey’s descriptions of herself, her personality, and her few friends often feel repetitious. At one point while I was reading “C is for Corpse” I had a feeling of déjà vu and wondered if I had already read a particular section. It turned out that it was just strikingly similar to a passage in another one of her books.
In each book Millhone is sketched as a loner who likes to jog, who pays attention to people’s mannerisms and quirks of personality, and lives in a converted garage which could be an early example of tiny house living. There are few constant companions in her life and in each book, as in “C is for Corpse,” the main people in her life are her landlord, an elderly man who likes to bake and create crossword puzzles that he publishes, and an annoying and bossy Hungarian restaurant owner named Rosy. Not to subtle, the baker in the restaurant owner are Kinsey’s substitute parents, the closest thing she has since her real ones died when she was a child in what will later be revealed to have been a mysterious car accident. This event is tiresomely alluded to by Kinsey in every book.
The characters are reasonably well drawn but there is a certain repetition that is detectable even among the three or so books I have read in the series with much the same descriptions and character traits being described in much the same way from book to book, in a sort of variation on a theme.
Plot Summary and Analysis
“C is for Corpse” is a fairly pedestrian novel and lacks suspense or even much mystery. You can see who the killer is a mile away, less than a third of the way into the book. The rest involved watching Kinsey follow a few dead ends and eventually figure out the obvious.
The book also follows the usual cookie-cutter pattern of having a main mystery we had a sub mystery to solve. This is a trope that has become standard in almost every television series and feels just as formulaic in this book.
The main mystery involves Kinsey trying to figure out who tried and then eventually succeeded in killing her client Bobby Callahan. Kinsey is recovering from a gunshot wound suffered in the previous installment of the series called “B is for Burglar.” She is working out at a local gym when she meets Bobby Callahan, a 23-year-old rich kid who is also trying to overcome injuries. In Bobby’s case he was in a car accident and he believes he was intentionally run off the road. He does not remember who did it or much about his life before the accident. He suffered permanent brain damage and physical disability, but he remains an affable young man despite his tendency to drool saliva from his partially paralyzed face. Despite her tendency to be a loner, Kinsey finds herself drawn in Bobby and they develop an unlikely friendship on top of their professional relationship.
Bobby hires Kinsey to investigate the accident and find out who tried to kill him. Bobby belongs to a rich family and is rich in his own right. His family is dysfunctional in the stereotypical way that all rich families supposedly are in fiction. He has an anorexic drug addicted stepsister named, of course, Kitty, just as all spoiled rich girls are in unimaginative works of fiction. Bobby may or may not be in love with her. He also may or may not have written down the secret that led to his assassination attempt in a red address book but now he does not remember who he gave it to where it is. Much of the book involves Kinsey looking for the address book and becoming involved with Bobby’s dysfunctional family including his mother Glen and his step-father Derek, who is the usual red herring suspect.
Soon after hiring Kinsey, Joe is suddenly killed in yet another automobile accident. The death is originally believed to have been caused by a stroke arising from the injuries sustained in the first automobile accident. Later it turns out that in fact Joe’s brake lines were cut. Despite the death of her client, Kinsey feels professionally obligated to complete the investigation and give Bobby his money’s worth. She is also motivated by the fact that she genuinely liked Bobby. The depth of Kinsey’s feelings for Bobby are a plot device to explain her dogged determination to solve the crime, but this does not make much sense since she had only met Bobby a few days before his death and had not spent more than a few hours in total with him. The whole thing seems forced and not realistic. What would Kinsey, who lives a minimalist lifestyle in a converted garage have had in common with a younger man who drooled while he spoke to her, and lived in a gigantgic mansion?
Bobby is seeing a psychiatrist named Dr. Fraker to help him come to terms with being permanently disabled. Fraker is also treating Bobby’s drug addicted stepsister Kity and is married to a friend of Bobby’s mother named Nola.
Kinsey meets Dr. Fraker and almost immediately the reader is given a clue that he is the killer. Kinsey then spends the rest of the book uncovering the obvious. The only thing that was not clear is why Fraker would have tried to kill his patient. His motives are not clear because the book is a muddled mess and ultimately the psychiatrist’s motives come down to the fact he is crazier than is patients. The old crazy psychiatrist cliché is so formulaic that you almost hope that Grafton has thrown this in as a red herring. But no, the book is that formulaic. It’s the psychiatrist. And he’s craaazy.
lIt turns out that before his accident Bobby was having an affair with the psychiatrist’s wife, Nola, a much older woman than him. Her husband is a conniving sociopath crazier than his own patient. It is never fully explained but somehow this crazed psychiatrist was blackmailing his wife into staying in the marriage. Years before the wife had shot her first husband and blamed it on a burglar. Somehow the gun had never been found. And somehow the psychiatrist had gotten his hands on it and knew that this gun had woman’s fingerprints on it, so he was able to blackmail her into being in a relationship with him, under threat of revealing her secret.
We are told that Nola was absolutely terrified of her husband and feared that he would expose her if she left the marriage. Yet, despite her justified fear, she embarks on a dangerous affair with Bobby, which ultimately leads to his death.
Bobby falls in love with Nola, a much older woman carefully altered by cosmetic surgery. He dumps his beautiful aerobics instructor girlfriend and becomes Nola’s white knight, trying to find out where Dr. Fraker has hidden the incriminating gun, so that he can free Nola from his grip and the two of them can be together. For reasons that are never made clear, Bobby suspects that the gun is hidden at the city morgue, where Dr. Fraker also has an office. That is a very odd place for a psychiatrist to have an office. But of course, it is necessary for the big plot twist and so she can put corpse in the title.
Plot Holes and Things That Don’t Make Any Sense
Bobby gets a night job at the morgue and spends his shifts searching for the gun. He apparently discovered where it was, but instead of doing anything with the information he wrote a coded reference to its location in an address book and entrusts it to his best friend Gus, the usual pot smoking character found in books of this ilk. After the accident, Bobby forgets what was in the address book or who he gave it to and most of the book involves Kinsey trying to track it down. But why write it down at all? Once Bobby had discovered the gun’s hiding place, there was no need for coordinates (as I will explain later) and besides, he had disguised the information so cleverly that no one would have been able to figure out what the code meant. So writing it the information down and giving it to someone else did not afford him any protection and did not ensure that the truth would come out if something happened to him. This is just one of the many frustrating plot holes and illogical things in this book.
Detective Kinsey’s sleuthing leads her to visit the city morgue at night, which is conveniently deserted. She digs around and decides to x-ray the body of a John Doe in the morgue because the case number for the John Doe matches what at first appeared to be a phone number and Bobby’s address book. Given that there was only one male John Doe at the morgue, why would Bobby even need to write down the corpse’s inventory number? It is not as if he would have had trouble finding the man again.
Sure enough when Kinsey takes an x-ray of the corpse, she finds that the gun has been hidden in his abdomen. How bizarre is that? Of all the places someone could hide the gun, hiding it inside a corpse who might be subject to subsequent autopsy or disposal would be the worst place possible. Secreting the gun inside the mushy intestinal area of the dead man would also have erased any fingerprints on the gun, making it useless as a blackmail tool. At the very least the blackmailer would have had to explain how all these extraneous bodily fluids and tissues had ended up on this gun if his wife had in fact killed a man would it. But you see, this stupid plot device was necessary in order to give the book its title and to follow the alphabetical progression of Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone detective series.
In other words the denouement needed to involve a corpse and Grafton achieved her objective by using the most far-fetched plot device possible. Nothing could stand in the way of Grafton’s alphabetical requirements. I will not even go into the impossibility of an untrained person successfully operating an x-ray machine, let alone even turning it on properly.
As is always the case in these clichéd plots, the murderer arrives on the scene just as Kinsey has figured everything out. Dr. Fraker had been blackmailing his wife to stay in the marriage by threatening to give the gun to the police. When Bobby found out where the gun was, Dr. Fraker killed him. First he ran him off the road and when that didn’t work, he cut his break lines and finished the job.
This is another one of the glaring plot holes in this book. If Dr. Fraker had such a hold on his wife, could he not have just uses his blackmail tool to make her break off the affair with Bobby? And given that Bobby had not removed the gun from the corpse when he somehow discovered it, and Dr. Fraker knew that Bobby had found out, couldn’t Dr. Fraker have just moved it somewhere else? And given that Dr. Fraker was a psychiatrist and not a coroner, how did he even get access to the corpse or know how to cut it open and insert the gun? And why does a psychiatrist have an office next to a morgue full of dead people? How many patients would go for treatment in a creepy dimly lit morgue? These ludicrous absurdities pervade the book.
But the biggest plot hole is the idea that Nola would have been afraid of her husband. The only hold he had on her was the threat that he would give the gun to the police and they would find her fingerprints on it. Dr. Fraker might have had the gun and he might have given it to the police if Nola did not do what he wanted, but of course the blackmailing husband had to be alive to do this. Assuming that, despite being a murderous psychopath, the man had to eat and sleep and given his wife’s experience with offing husbands, the Dr. Fraker might have found himself swimming with the fishes. I can think of a lot of ways Nola might have resolved her little Dr. Fraker problem. Instead, his wife simply gave in to his threats even after he killed her lover.
We are now at the climax of this frustratingly flawed story. Dr. Fraker finds Kinsey at the morgue. He knows she knows, and she knows he knows, and so he does what any murderous psychopath in a morgue would do; he attempts to add her to the collection of corpsicles. This psychotic psychiatrist likes to sing cheerful songs as he attempts to murder people and as he chases Kinsey through the deserted morgue building. This is convenient because it lets Kinsey know exactly where he is at all times, thus eliminating any advantage of surprise that he might have had. Eventually Kinsey deals with Dr. Fraker with a 2 x 4.
The second little mystery or subplot involves Kinsey’s elderly landlord who has fallen in love with a mysterious woman from out of town named Lila. Predictably this woman is manipulative and phony. Kinsey develops an immediate dislike for her and is suspicious of her intentions. After some investigating Kinsey discovers that her landlord’s love interest is in fact a con artist with active warrants for her arrest from various parts of the country. She manages to separate the landlord from his money, but Kinsey gets it back and also gets the con artist arrested on the outstanding warrants. This subplot is even more cliched than the main story line, employing the usual elderly-man-falls-for-manipulaive-con-artist trope. Was there ever any doubt that Lila would turn out to be a snake?
On the whole, “C is for Corpse” is a boring book with predictable plot “twists” and stock characters. There is very little suspense and the investigation is about as exciting as watching grass grow. I have used a cliché to make a point: the book is full of them. Grafton’s characters are vividly sketched and described but their personalities are the usual clichés. You have Rosey, the loud East European, the vulnerable elderly man with a heart of gold, Lila the con artist, the alcoholic rich people, the troubled and anorexic stepdaughter predictably named Kitty, and so forth. And then you have the usual cliché of the psychiatrist being more screwed up than his patients.
Even worse is the unbelievable plot twist that the murderer has hidden the evidence inside a corpse. If it were not for Grafton’s need to find a title that started with the letter “C’ would be the dumbest and least practical place to hide the gun.
The book should have been title “C is for Cliché.” Unless you are a fan of predictable mystery novels and unlikely plot twists whose sole role seems to be to justify the title, skip this one and perhaps the entire alphabetical Kinsey Millhone series series.