"J" Is for Judgment is the tenth novel in Sue Grafton's "Alphabet" series of mystery novels and features Kinsey Millhone, a private eye based in Santa Teresa, California. The novel features a significant development in Kinsey's personal back-story, as she discovers that she has extensive family living in the Lompoc area.
July 1984 contains two surprises for Kinsey Millhone in the tenth of the 'Alphabet' murder series, both connected to her past. First, California Fidelity Insurance reappears in her life in the form of Mac Voorhies, who wants her help with a case some seven months after his boss Gordon Titus terminated Kinsey's loose employment relationship with CFI. Secondly, in the course of the investigation, Kinsey makes a shocking discovery about her own past when she discovers she has a family she knew nothing about.
The case Mac hires Kinsey to investigate is that of Wendell Jaffe, assumed to have died five years previously when his boat, the Captain Stanley Lord, was found drifting off the Baja coast. He left behind a suicide note, a whole bunch of creditors who had invested in what turned out to be a Ponzi scheme, and a family: wife Dana, and sons Michael and Brian. It seemed certain Jaffe had killed himself to avoid the disgrace and jail sentence which fell instead to his business partner, Carl Eckert, but with no body to prove death, CFI made Dana wait the full statutory five years to presume death before paying out on Jaffe's half million insurance claim, and she has been making ends meet by working as a wedding planner. Michael, now 22, has coped reasonably well with suddenly being the man of the house, and is a new husband and father himself. Eighteen-year-old Brian on the other hand is in a mess, currently residing in juvenile hall.
Two months after the insurance money was finally paid, a former colleague of Mac's has spotted a man he is convinced is Jaffe in Viento Negro, Mexico. Mac hires Kinsey to go there and check it out. After a little hotel room breaking and entering, she finds Wendell is now known as Dean DeWitt Huff, travelling with a woman called Renata Huff, who has a residence on the quays in Perdido, near Santa Teresa, as well as a boat of her own. Before Kinsey can prove his identity, they skip out; on the same day, Brian is arrested in the middle of a botched escape attempt in which a female motorist, as well as his three conspirators, are killed. Kinsey is convinced Wendell will be heading back to California to reconnect with his son.
Doing a door-to-door back in California, Kinsey is astonished to be asked if she is related to the Burton Kinsey family of Lompoc, as she looks so like them. Kinsey denies the connection, but undertakes a little detective work on her behalf and is amazed to find her mother's father was indeed Burton Kinsey. Far from being family-less, Kinsey has cousins, aunts and a grandmother living less than an hour away. Her cousin Liza shows up to tell her the family scandal: Kinsey's mother was cut off from her family for marrying Kinsey's father. Kinsey is aghast that no one has tried to track her down in the 29 years since her parents were killed and is resentful of any intrusion into her solitude at this late date.
Her thoughts are dragged back to the case at hand when through an apparent police clerical error, Brian is suddenly released from prison. Kinsey is certain Wendell has engineered it, and is planning to slip through her fingers again with Brian. Renata catches Kinsey red-handed searching on her property but when Kinsey turns the tables (and her own gun) on her, Renata admits Wendell is visiting Michael. At last, Kinsey has tracked Jaffe down, but her success is short-lived when someone takes potshots at them both, and Wendell escapes once more. The day after, the Captain Stanley Lord, where Eckert has been living for the past few years, also goes missing while Eckert is away, and when it's found drifting uninhabited a few miles off-shore there's a distinct sense of deja-vu about Wendell's disappearance.
Nevertheless, it's enough for CFI: Kinsey has proved Jaffe didn't die and therefore the insurance money can be reclaimed from Dana. But Kinsey is dissatisfied... she wants the truth, and is prepared to pursue it on her own time. She finds Brian, and also finds out from Eckert that there was three million dollars from their fraudulent business scheme on board the missing boat. Renata confesses that she killed Wendell, dumped his body at sea and then set the Lord adrift, making her way back to shore in her own dinghy. She then wades out into the sea to kill herself, and Kinsey is unable to stop her.
Renata's story is apparently confirmed when Jaffe's body washes up on the shore. But Renata's never does, leaving Kinsey wondering if she has managed to fake her own death just like Wendell.
"J" Is for Judgment was a New York Times best-seller and had an initial press run of nearly half a million copies.