M is for Malice

Copyright 1997 by Robert L. Gidley. All rights reserved.

Published in the In Town Comic News (formerly Northwest Comic News) in Issue #184, February 1997. Rules for "Judging a Book by Its Cover."

Okay, I'll admit this up front. Part of the reason that I like to buy Sue Grafton books is that they are easy to file in the bookcase. "A" is for Alibi goes first, "B" is for Burglar goes next, and so on. This makes life a lot easier when I put my books in order (which I do at least once a decade).

The first thing that struck me about this book was the title. "M" is for Malice? Okay, I can understand not going with "M" is for Murder, because everybody expects that one (plus it could get confused with the Hitchcock movie, Dial M for Murder—which I once saw in 3-D, and since this book is also three-dimensional, it's easy to see how you could mistake the two).

But "Malice"? Why not "M" is for Misdemeanor? (The exciting tale of a jaywalker fleeing justice.) Or "M" is for Miscreant? (Snidely Whiplash abducts Kinsey Mallone and ties her to a railroad track, where she boldly makes her escape after the regularly scheduled Amtrack train derails, spilling nitrous oxide everywhere—which would at least have a happy ending.)

But the cover does show a very nice looking "M." It's big and red and has serifs and everything. Of course, Ms. Grafton had nothing to do with the cover, which was done by Raquel Jaramillo, who in the tradition of jacket designers everywhere probably didn't even read the book. She (or he, it's so hard to tell with a name like "Jaramillo") just whipped out a fancy cover to fool innocent book buyers. Why, I'll bet there's not even a big red "M" anywhere in the book! This sort of misleading advertising is a major factor behind the rise in illiteracy in this country. ("Hey, man, this book jacket has a Mark IV Class Z laser cannon on the cover, and the book only has photon torpedos. What a rip!")

The "M" is significant because it's the thirteenth letter of the alphabet (and "M" also stands for Marijuana, which is why tough guys always had a "13" tatooed on their arms, so they could make a statement about their drug use without coming right out and saying it—although if they did smoke marijuana, they were usually too stoned to remember why they had a "13" on their arms).

The back cover is taken up with a picture of some woman (presumably Ms. Grafton, although in this age of computer-generated Betty Crocker images, it could also be a retouched Pat Nixon), dressed in black, staring pensively towards the big "M" on the cover.

This marks a radical departure from the earlier books, where Ms. Grafton (or Mrs. Nixon, depending) is shown either smiling and happy ("Hey! This is a happy crime book!") or fooling around with a gun ("Buy this book or I'll shoot one of my toes off!") and sometimes both at the same time. The publisher probably discovered that this cut into book sales (one of my cardinal rules is "Never buy a book with a smiling, armed author on the back").

So Ms. Grafton is definitely moving towards the dark side (or else she shot off one of her toes taking pictures for a previous book and is still pissed about it), which will no doubt be reflected in the story. (Kinsey Mallone gets stoned, has a "13" tatooed on one of her toes and then, in a fit of remorse, shoots the toe off.)

But the cover does promise a mystery (another "M" word!). In fact, the back flap quotes The Wall Street Journal (an industry leader in literary analysis) as saying "this may be the most satisfying mystery series going." They don't say where it's going (or why they are unsure about it), but hey—it's more interesting than reading stock market tables.

If you want to save 25 bucks (35 bucks if you drink beer and say "eh?" a lot), I'll tell you the solution to the mystery, which, after careful study of the book jacket, is completely obvious.

The big red "M" did it. Really.

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Copyright 1997 by Robert L. Gidley. All rights reserved.