Any writers of long-running, popular mystery series face a dilemma: Fans expect them to touch every familiar base in book after book but also want something new each time. In S Is for Silence, her 19th novel to feature California private investigator Kinsey Millhone, Sue Grafton does something much smarter than trying to thread this particular needle: She just ignores it. The result is the freshest, tautest installment in quite a while and the reason for that may be that Grafton suddenly seems more interested in shaking up her own formula than in giving some of her readers what they think they want.
Grafton's user-friendly style makes it easy for new readers to climb aboard at any point in the series, but if you're an aficionado of the Millhone books, be prepared: All the old pit stops a nice long visit with Kinsey's spry, ancient friend Henry, rambling scenes with crusty restaurateuse Rosie, even face time with our heroine's recently acquired boyfriend are given the shortest possible shrift here. Kinsey nods in their direction the way you wave to your neighbor when you're in a rush, then moves on to the far more pressing matter at hand: the mystery itself. This time, it's a missing-persons case, with a twist for both Kinsey the woman was last seen in 1953 and her creator, who departs from her first-person narrative for a third of the book's length to unfold the crime in puzzle-piece flashbacks.
As Grafton's portrait of a classic 1950s small-town femme fatale and the men and women around her comes into focus, her writing, which has always been strong, feels more sharply observant than ever (''Her face...had suffered a collapse,'' she writes of one character, ''as if somebody yanked a chain and a curtain of wrinkles descended with a thud''). Temporarily breaking free from Kinsey's voice caffeinates Grafton's prose, and diving into the past also allows her to embrace what has become the signature weirdness of this series the fact that since 1982's A Is for Alibi, the books' timeline has crept forward so slowly that in S Is for Silence, we're only up to 1987.
For the first time in memory, Grafton not only begins to have fun with this ''problem'' her references to Kevin Costner movies and Jazzercise classes are adroit name-checks but uses it to her advantage. The case Kinsey comes up against, with its film-noir atmosphere, its miasma of local gossip and marital obligation, and its Moral Rearmament meetings, could only be set in the '50s, and it would strain credibility if the gratifyingly large pool of suspects was still alive in 2006 rather than in 1987. And Grafton's sense of detail is, as ever, unerring. ''Please do not write me those notes telling me I got it wrong, because I didn't,'' she says in a pleasingly vinegary author's note. And except for a reference to James Dean fan worship that seems a shade early, she's as good as her word: S Is for Silence gets it right.