“J” Is for Judgment by Sue Grafton

Grafton, Sue. “J” Is for Judgment (1993) 
Fawcett Crest, 360 pages, $6.99 paperback
ISBN 0 449 22148 2

A little over five years ago Wendell Jaffe disappeared from his sail boat, leaving behind a suicide note and a failed, fraudulent investment company. Jaffe also left behind a business partner who went to jail for fraud, a financially strapped wife, Dana, and two sons, ages 17 and 12 at the time of their father’s disappearance. Kinsey Millhone’s former employer, California Fidelity, issued a policy on Wendell Jaffe’s life but was reluctant to pay up without benefit of a body. Now that the required five years have elapsed, Dana Jaffe has had her husband declared legally dead, and CF has been forced to turn over the $500,000.

But the agent who sold Wendell Jaffe the life insurance policy insists that he has seen Jaffe at a small resort in Mexico. CF hires Kinsey to find out whether Wendell is really dead, a task that she jauntingly undertakes with liberal doses of her self-deprecating humor.

This novel differs from more traditional mysteries in that it raises more questions than it answers. Kinsey does finally settle the matter of whether CF must pay out Wendell Jaffe’s death benefit, but in the process she encounters disturbing questions about human nature, about peoples’ motivations and emotions.

And the most intriguing questions the novel raises are about Kinsey herself. While she’s questioning Dana Jaffe’s neighbors, a retired man whose hobby is researching family crests asks Kinsey if she’s related to the Burton Kinseys of Lompoc. As far as Kinsey knows she has no family, but the question nags at her.

Kinsey’s parents were both killed in an automobile accident on the road to Lompoc when Kinsey was 5 years old. She was raised by her maiden aunt, Aunt Ginny, her mother’s sister. Aunt Ginny, who died about 10 years before the time of this novel, never told Kinsey about any other family. But when Kinsey checks her parents’ marriage license application, she finds that Burton Kinsey is indeed her mother’s father.

A few days later a woman shows up at Kinsey’s office and identifies herself as Kinsey’s cousin Liza. She then proceeds to tell Kinsey the family story. Kinsey’s mother, Rita, the oldest of five sisters, was disowned by her wealthy parents when, at age 18, she married a 33-year-old mailman. Kinsey is stunned to learn that she has three more aunts, a bunch of cousins, and a grandmother (grandfather Burton having died within the last year) who have lived less than an hour’s drive away all of Kinsey’s life.

Kinsey’s cousins seem to expect her to welcome her newfound family with open arms, but Kinsey’s reaction is guarded. Now 34 years old, she wonders why no one ever got in touch with her before, particularly 10 years ago when Aunt Ginny died. “`I’ve made my peace with the fact that I’m alone. I like my life as it is, and I’m not at all sure I want to change’” (p. 285), Kinsey tells her cousin Tasha. And Kinsey ends her characteristic epilogue with the sentence “God knows I have questions about my own life to answer yet” (p. 360).

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown

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