Art imitates life, except sometimes that happens in reverse.
Posted by Jason Venter (July 25, 2014)
In 1992, a couple of years before Nicole Brown Simpson was brutally stabbed to death, Sue Grafton wrote the novel "I Is for Innocent." The book begins with Kinsey Millhone trying to gather information so that the attorney she knows can bring a civil case against a man named David Barney.
Six years ago, David Barney's ex-wife was waiting for friends to arrive from the Bay area. When she heard a knock on the door, she peered through the peephole and into the barrel of a pistol, which was fired with the intended effect. Police found Barney in the area a short time later, jogging by night, and they quickly arrested him. A trial followed, and to everyone's surprise, Barney's slick lawyer managed to secure a "not guilty" verdict from the reluctant jury, which hadn't felt that the prosecutor proved his case beyond a reasonable doubt.
A civil trial doesn't have the same constraints, though. Now, as the statute of limitations nears its expiration, the victim's other ex-husband is anxious to make David Barney pay for the crime nearly everyone is convinced he committed.
As you might have guessed, the general setup for the story reminded me of the OJ Simpson case. After being found innocent of the crime of murder, Simpson avoided jail time (until he acted all thuggish when someone stole his memorabilia) but was forced to pay a civil settlement that ruined him. I suppose similar situations must come up all the time, but it's hard not to see similarities between the most famous criminal case of the 90s and this work of fiction that preceded it.
"I Is for Innocent" is an interesting read, though, even when you put aside thoughts of OJ Simpson. Kinsey Millhone inherited the case in part because the attorney investigating it before her--a man who apparently was the partner to Kinsey's one-time mentor--dropped dead of an apparent heart attack. He left his files in some disarray and appears not to have investigated as aggressively as his billing invoices suggested. That leaves Kinsey in a hurry, because a deadline is looming and she's playing catch-up.
There also are a number of suspects that police mostly ignored six years previously, and they all seem to have had motivation to actually commit the crime. Kinsey was hired with the assumption that David Barney is guilty, but she can't dismiss any evidence to the contrary. Some of the stories that witnesses and suspects tell her seem a little too convenient.
After "H Is for Homicide" disappointed me, I half expected "I Is for Innocent" to bowl me over with brilliance. So far, it seems like every other book in the series has managed that feat, after rebounding from a lackluster previous outing. In this instance, I would say the recovery wasn't quite as masterful, but "I Is for Innocent" definitely entertained me and its mystery was satisfying until nearly the very end. I didn't figure out who actually killed the victim, but I also didn't feel especially cheated when the killer's identity was revealed. It felt like something Agatha Christie might have written, were she still alive in 1992 and writing about the feisty Kinsey Millhone instead of the demure Miss Marple.
Another point in the novel's favor is the subplot with Henry, Kinsey's elderly landlord, who is entertaining his hypochondriac brother for a couple of weeks. There's some amusing dialogue there, and the developing situation provides comic relief that helps prevent the overall tone of the novel from getting overly heavy.
While I wouldn't call "I Is for Innocent" the best book in the often stellar series, it's a generally satisfying mystery read with a cast of relatable characters and enough twists to keep a person engaged. Any returning characters are introduced effectively, so that newcomers shouldn't feel lost. That makes this is a great place to start if you'd rather not go all the way back to the beginning (though I recommend starting with "A Is for Alibi" if you can find the time). If the pattern thus far continues to hold true, I can look forward to having less fun with "J Is for Judgment." Only time will tell!
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