Rahul Sharma (Editor)

"U" Is for Undertow

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Media type
Print (hardcover)


Originally published
1 December 2009

Preceded by
"T" Is for Trespass



Alphabet Mysteries

416 pp (first edition)


Sue Grafton

Followed by
"V" Is for Vengeance

United States of America

Works by Sue Grafton, Alphabet murder mystery books, Mystery books

"U" Is for Undertow is the 21st novel in Sue Grafton's "Alphabet" series of mystery novels and features Kinsey Millhone, a private eye based in Santa Teresa, California. The novel, set in 1988, finds Kinsey investigating the disappearance of a 4-year-old girl in 1967 and the narrative weaves between both time periods. The novel has reached the top position on several best-seller lists.



In April 1988, Kinsey Millhone is hired by a young man named Michael Sutton to investigate a memory that he claims to have recovered of two people burying a body in the woods in the exclusive Horton Ravine neighborhood in 1967, when he turned six years old. He claims that the burial took place on his birthday, two days after a famous unsolved kidnapping of a four-year-old named Mary Claire in the neighborhood, in which the kidnappers requested $25,000 but never picked up the ransom after police were called. She was never found. Although Michael's memory is hazy, he and Kinsey manage to locate the spot of the burial, but a police dig uncovers only the body of a wolfdog named Ulf. One of the bystanders watching the dig, a banker named Walker McNally, who was a high school classmate of Kinsey, spends the entire weekend drinking and kills a young woman in a DUI on Sunday night.

Kinsey learns that Sutton was involved in a past "recovered memory" event that proved false, while greatly disrupting his family. Bothered by this, Kinsey traces the dogtag back to the dog's owner, who told her that the dog had been euthanized around that time. No one has any idea how the remains ended up in Horton Ravine. Upon returning to Horton Ravine to talk to the neighbors, Kinsey learns that Rain, the four-year-old granddaughter/adopted daughter of the couple that formerly owned the lot, had been kidnapped in a similar fashion just before Mary Claire but was returned unharmed after her parents paid a ransom of $15,000 using marked bills, which also never turned up.

A parallel story set in the 1960s is initially told from the viewpoint of Deborah Unruh, Rain's grandmother. Greg, the Unruhs' son, returned home with his pregnant girlfriend Shelly after dropping out of college in 1963. Five days after she gave birth to their daughter Rain, they left, leaving the baby behind. Two years later, the Unruhs formally adopted Rain. Two years after that, in 1967, Greg and Shelly (now calling themselves Creed and Destiny) returned to borrow $40,000 against Greg's trust, but the Unruhs refused to make such a loan. Greg and Shelly left unexpectedly not long thereafter. Almost immediately after they left, Rain was kidnapped.

Kinsey talks to Deborah, who believes that Shelly was behind Rain's kidnapping because of the $40,000 total ransom. However, Kinsey learns that Greg and Shelly had hurredly fled the area because the Selective Service had been tipped off to draft dodger Greg's location, ruling them out as suspects. Michael's family finds evidence that the date Michael claimed to see the burial was a week earlier, making it prior to Mary Claire's kidnapping, discrediting Michael and leaving Kinsey at a dead end.

In another set of flashbacks, the story of the successful writer Jon Corso, Walker's best friend in high school, is told. Walker and Jon became friends with Greg and Shelly during their second visit, and Jon started an intense sexual affair with Shelly. Shelly told Jon her plan to kidnap Rain for ransom, but Jon decided to implement the plan on his own so that he and Walker could afford their own apartment when they started college in the fall. Walker, in fact, was the person that tipped off the draft board about Greg. Jon and Walker buried the ransom money after realizing it was marked, but they moved the money and substituted the dog after being seen, to make their digging look harmless. Still needing money after burying Rain's ransom, they kidnapped Mary Claire, but she died from an allergic reaction to Valium, which they used to keep her sedated during her kidnapping.

Back in the present, Michael Sutton sees Walker at an AA meeting (which Walker has attended since his DUI) and follows him, remembering him as one of the two diggers. Michael calls Kinsey to tell her, since no one else believes him any longer. Panicked by his role in two deaths (the "undertow" of the title), Walker calls Jon and says he is going to turn himself in for the kidnapping, despite the lack of evidence. Jon talks him into a small delay and then shoots and kills Michael. Since Walker has an airtight alibi for the time of the killing, Kinsey immediately suspects Jon due to their close friendship in high school. She heads to Jon's house, where she sees him leaving with suitcases, and follows him to a secluded meeting with Walker. Jon's plan to murder Walker and flee the country is foiled by Kinsey, who shoots him after he pulls a gun on her, and both Jon and Walker are arrested. Mary Claire's body and the marked money are both recovered on Jon's family's property.

In a side story, Kinsey is invited to a family event (the first return to her family backstory since "Q" Is for Quarry). During the preparation for the event, which Kinsey resists attending, she is given letters from her grandmother that her Aunt Gin, who raised her, had refused. She learns that, far from ignoring her, her grandmother had wanted to adopt her after her parents' deaths and had even hired a private investigator to gain custody of her. In a final irony, she learns that Gin and the private investigator had had an affair, and that little Kinsey had gone on outings with them. In the end, she attends the family event, where her grandmother, who is increasingly senile, mistakes her for her late mother and tells her how happy she would be if Kinsey were to come visit her.

Critical reaction

Sarah Weinman of the Los Angeles Times wrote that Grafton "has produced a better book each time out, and "U" is her most structurally complex, psychologically potent book to date. Marilyn Stasio of The New York Times wrote, "So has this reliable series lost its addictive appeal? Not at all — though it’s a shock to realize that the stories, set in a California coastal town in the 1980s, now read more like historical narratives than contemporary novels with a slight time lag. But it’s an object lesson in disciplined storytelling to watch Grafton manipulate that time frame to broaden the story and deepen the mystery."

Upon its release, "U" Is for Undertow leapt to the top of several notable best-seller lists, including those maintained by the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and the Palm Beach Post.


"U" Is for Undertow Wikipedia