Sunday, December 19, 2010

Review- A Grave Talent by Laurie R. King

A Grave Talent
by Laurie R. King
1993
Mystery/Detective/Lesbian character
342 pgs.-Bantam Books

Buy it - anywhwere

This gripping debut of the Kate Martinelli mystery series won the Edgar Award for Best First Mystery, generating wide critical acclaim and moving Laurie R. King into the upper tier of the genre. As A Grave Talent begins, the unthinkable has happened in a small community outside of San Francisco. A string of shocking murders has occurred, each victim an innocent child. For Detective Kate Martinelli, just promoted to Homicide and paired with a seasoned cop who's less than thrilled to be handed a green partner, it's going to be a difficult case. Then the detectives receive what appears to be a case-breaking lead: it seems that one of the residents of this odd, close-knit colony is Vaun Adams, arguably the century's greatest painter of women, a man, as it turns out, with a sinister secret. For behind the brushes and canvases also stands a notorious felon once convicted of strangling a little girl. What really happened on that day of savage violence eighteen years ago? To bring a murderer to justice, Kate must delve into the artist's dark past—even if she knows it means losing everything she holds dear.


This is the first book of Laurie R. King’s that I’ve read and I quite liked it and her writing style. What stood out for me most with A Grave Talent were the intriguing and well developed characters. The plot was sort of typical to a mystery/thriller, but I got off on the characters the most.

I’ll also admit that I got this book because I read that one of the main characters, Kate, a police detective, is a lesbian. I wanted to see how a mainstream author was able to write a lesbian character that a mainstream publisher would publish. On this level, I was very surprised that it was more a factor than I thought it would be.

What’s interesting though is that Kate, as a character, really doesn’t stand out in this book even though the series is named after her and she is the main character in the next few. Because she’s a lesbian and on the police force, she’s rather tight lipped about her personal life to her new partner and the head of the task force, Hawkin. So she really doesn’t come out as a strong personality for the first ¾'s of the book.

Also, for some reason, Ms. King decided to keep the fact that she’s a lesbian on the Q.T. for the first half of the book, only describing her partner Lee in generic, non gender identifying terms. Why she did that I don’t know, but I feel that it kept Kate from really opening up about who she is, which blocked us the reader as well. Once it comes out and Kate allows Hawkin into her house and private life to protect Vaun Adams a victim, then we get to see some of what Kate is all about.

Who really came through as an intriguing and complex character was Vaun Adams. While thankfully not written as the typical tortured artist, there is so much mystery about her. Being a victim of her strange personality basically, she’s learned to be rather laconic, not showing much of what she’s thinking. As an artist, she’s all about observation, which gives a cool, but deep aura about her. I couldn’t get enough of her. And that was an issue for me. When there’s a character that is well written and turns me on basically, then I want more. But Vaun is kept an enigma for most of the book and I guess that’s part of what kept me reading.

The next character is Hawkin. I loved him as a character. He’s also not stereotypical. He’s a deep thinker who has a lot of insight and observational ability. He’s a rough and tumble detective, however, he looks past the obvious about people and there’s a quiet intensity that he shows as well. He’s also non-judgmental about people and life, which allowed for him and Kate to interact without all of possible homophobia and sexism that is used in many cop stories with GLBT or female characters to create tension.

The plot also worked very nicely. Yeah, it’s sort of typical; the sociopathic serial killer type thing is common, but what worked here for me was that the pacing was right on. There’s a nice slow build up. Although I will say there were some confusing or implausible things even for a detective story. I tend to suspend disbelief a lot in this genre because well, if the author writes it in an entertaining way, then I’m enjoying and I let things go. But the ending was a bit of a let-down and I saw it coming on the suspense part.

Some other things readers might be bothered about, but which I wasn’t, is that this is set in San Francisco and there were some stereotypical issues around a cult like hippie/alternative lifestyle group where some of this story is set. I found it unique though since Vaun is not the type to be able to fit into mainstream life and that was a good set up for her and the story line.

About Kate and Lee’s relationship, it’s mentioned more often than I thought. And we do get some insight into their relationship, how they interact and relate. Especially towards the end. And in the end, I was rather shocked actually that the whole Kate being a lesbian and being out at that point to her boss and colleagues was treated normally, with some lighthearted joking and a “we don’t care, you’re a great detective” kind of stance. It’s always a slippery slope for a straight, mainstream author portraying a GLBT character to not veer into stereotypes.

I read on AfterEllen in an interview with Ms. King that at the time she wrote the book, she didn’t even think about how offensive it might have been to write a gay character like that. That it was possible to be rife with stereotypes and misunderstandings. However, I think she did an excellent job of it. And I feel it was very gutsy of her to do so even if her intentions for writing a lesbian character were more for practical purposes.

All in all, complex characterizations with good mystery makes A Grave Talent a recommend for me. Especially if you’re into the mystery/detective/suspense genre.

Heat level: 0 only hints at a sex life.

Grade B+

2 comments:

Cathy in AK said...

Considering the pub date, this was a gutsy book to get out there. Brava to Ms. King and Bantam.

Another title to put the TBB list : ) Thanks!

LVLM(Leah) said...

Cathy- I was actually surprised that it wasn't just a by the way. Goes to show that GLBT characters can be accepted by mainstream publishers.