A Grave Talent (Kate Martinelli Series #1)

A Grave Talent (Kate Martinelli Series #1)

by Laurie R. King


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312088040
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 02/01/1993
Series: Kate Martinelli Series , #1
Pages: 310
Product dimensions: 5.88(w) x 8.46(h) x 1.04(d)

About the Author

Laurie R. King is the New York Times bestselling author of a dozen Mary Russell mysteries, beginning with The Beekeeper's Apprentice, and several contemporary novels featuring Kate Martinelli, including To Play the Fool, A Grave Talent, and With Child. An Edgar Award winner, she lives in Northern California.

Read an Excerpt

A Grave Talent

By Laurie R. King

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 1993 Laurie R. King
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-9093-6


San Francisco was still dark when the telephone erupted a foot from the ear of Katarina Cecilia Martinelli, Casey to her colleagues, Kate to her few friends. She had it off the hook before the first ring had ended.


"Inspector Martinelli?"


"Inspector Hawkin wants you to pick him up at the front entrance in fifteen minutes. He says to tell you they found Samantha Donaldson."

"Not alive."


"Tell the inspector it'll be closer to twenty, unless he wants me in my pajamas." She hung up without waiting for a response, flung back the tangle of blankets, and lay for a moment looking up into the dark room. She was not wearing pajamas.

A sleep-thick voice came from the next pillow.

"Is this going to be a common occurrence from now on?"

"You married into trouble when you married me," Kate snarled cheerfully.

"I didn't marry you."

"If it's good enough for Harriet Vane, it's good enough for you."

"Oh, God, Lord Peter in my bed at, what is it, five o'clock? I knew this promotion was a mistake."

"Go back to sleep."

"I'll make you some breakfast."

"No time."

"Toast, then. You go shower."

Kate scooped clothes out of various drawers and closets, and then paused with them tucked under her left arm and looked out the window.

Of all views of the bridge that dominated this side of the city, it was this one she loved the best—still dark, but with the early commute beginning to thicken the occasional headlights that passed at what seemed like arm's reach. The Bay Bridge was a more workmanlike structure than the more famous Golden Gate Bridge, but the more beautiful for it. Alcatraz, which lay full ahead of the house, could be seen from this side by leaning a bit. Kate leaned, checked that the defunct island prison still looked as surreal as it always did in the dark, and then stayed leaning against the frame of the window, her nose almost touching the old, undulating glass. She was hit by a brief, fierce surge of passion for the house, for the wood against her right hand—wood which that hand had stripped and sanded and varnished eighteen months before—and for the oak boards beneath her bare feet that she herself had freed of the cloying flowered carpet and filled and sanded and varnished and waxed. She was not yet thirty years old and had lived in eighteen different houses and had never before understood how anyone could feel possessive of a mere set of walls. Now she could. Perhaps you had to put sweat into a house before it was home, she speculated, watching the cars curve past her. Or perhaps it was that she'd never lived in anything but stucco before. Hard to get passionate about a house made of plywood and chicken wire.

This house was about as old as things get in San Francisco, where even the Mission is a reconstructed pretense. Its walls had smelled the fire of 1906, which had destroyed most of what the earthquake had left. The house had known six births and two deaths, had suffered the indignities of paint and of being crowded by inappropriate high-rises filled with absurdly expensive apartments, which greedily devoured the incomparable view from Russian Hill. The house was a true San Franciscan, fussy and dignified, immensely civilized and politely oblivious of the eccentricities of neighbors. It had several balconies, a great deal of hand-worked wood, heavy beams, crooked floors, and a pocket-handkerchief lawn that was shaded by the upstarts and by a neighbor's tree. Kate hoped that the house was as content with her as she was with it.

"I ought to flick on the lights," said Lee from behind her. "Give the commuters a thrill." Kate dropped a shoe, realized with a spurt of panic that she'd been standing there mesmerized by the lights for a good two minutes, snatched up the shoe and sprinted for the bathroom.

Toast was waiting for her downstairs, and a large thermos of strong coffee and a bag of sandwiches, and Kate pulled up to the curb in twenty-one minutes. Hawkin was standing on the sidewalk in front of the Hall of Justice, a raincoat over his arm, and climbed into the seat beside her. He tossed his hat negligently over his shoulder into the back.

"You know where you're going?" he said by way of greeting.

"Tyler's Road?"

"Yes. Wake me ten minutes before we get there," and so saying he wadded his coat against the door and was limp before they reached the freeway.

Kate drove fast and sure through the empty streets to the freeway entrance, negotiated the twists, merged into the southward lane without mishap. She was grateful for the reprieve from conversation, for although her round face was calm in the gray light and her short, strong fingers lay easily on the wheel, the fingers were icy and elsewhere she was sweating.

She left Highway 280 and pointed the car west over the coastal range, and in the gray light of early morning she made a deliberate effort to relax. She arched her hands in turn, settled herself back in the seat, and reached for the attitude she tried to have before a long run. Pace yourself, Kate, she thought. There's nothing you can't handle here, it's just another small step up the ladder; Hawkin's no ogre, you're going to learn a lot from him. Apprehension is one thing, it's only to be expected—news cameras, everyone's eye on you—but they're not going to see below the surface, nobody's interested in you.

True, it didn't help to know that she was there for a number of reasons that she wouldn't exactly have chosen and did not feel proud of. It amused her to think that she counted as a minority, advanced prematurely (but only by a degree) due to unexpected vacancies and one of those periodic departmental rumblings of concern over Image, Minorities, and the dread Women's Movement, but it was not amusing to think that she had been assigned to this specific case because she was relatively photogenic and a team player known for not making waves, that she was a political statement from the SFPD to critics from women's groups, and, worst of all, that her assignment reflected the incredibly outdated, absurd notion that women, even those without their own, were somehow "better with children." Humiliating reasons, but she was not about to cut her own throat by refusing the dubious honor. She just hoped the people she was going to work with didn't hold it against her. She wasn't sure about Al Hawkin. He had seemed pretty brusque yesterday, but....

Kate had presented herself in his office the evening before at precisely six o'clock with the same nervous symptoms that had stayed with her until this morning, the icy hands, sweating body, dry mouth. He looked up from his paper-strewn desk at her knock, a thickset, graying man in a light blue shirt, sleeves rolled up on hairy forearms, tieless, collar loosened, in need of a shave. He pulled off his glasses and looked at her with patient, detached blue-gray eyes, and she wondered if she had the right room. He hardly seemed to be the terror rumor had him.

"Lieutenant Hawkin?"

"Not any more. Just 'Inspector.' And you're ...?"

"Inspector Martinelli, sir. Lieutenant Patterson told me to come here at six o'clock." She heard her voice drift up into a question mark, and kicked herself. You will not be a Miss Wishy-Washy, she ordered herself fiercely.

"Yes. Do you drive?"

"Drive?" she repeated, taken aback. "Yes, I can drive."

"Good. I hate driving. Take an unmarked, if you like, or you can use your own car and bill the department, if you have a radio. Doesn't matter in the least to me. All I ask is that you never let the tank get less than half full. Damned inconvenient to run out of gas twenty miles from nowhere."

"Yes sir. I'll use my own, then, thanks. I have a car phone. Sir."

"The name is Al."

"Okay, Al."

"That stack of folders is for you to take home. I'll expect you to have read through them by tomorrow. See you in the morning."

With that he had put his glasses back on and taken up another file. Trying hard to keep her dignity in the face of the dismissal, she had gathered up the armload of papers and gone home to read into the early hours. First, however, she had filled the tank. And checked the oil.

A generous ten minutes before they arrived Kate spoke his name tentatively, and he immediately woke and looked around him. A few fat drops hit the windshield. She flicked on the wipers and glanced over at him.

"Looks like we'll be needing those raincoats," she offered. He gave no sign of having heard, and she flushed slightly. Damn, was he going to be one of those?

Actually, Alonzo Hawkin was not one of those. Alonzo Hawkin was simply the epitome of the one-track mind, and at that moment his mind was on a very different track from the weather. He missed little, reacted less, and thought incessantly about his work. His wife had found him dismal company, and had immersed herself in their two children—schools, dance lessons, soccer teams. Six months after the younger one left for the university, the presence of a continually distracted husband who worked strange hours and slept stranger ones had proven more than she could bear, and she too had gone. That was a year ago. He had stayed on at his job in Los Angeles, but when he heard of the opening in San Francisco and thought that it might be nice to be able to breathe in the summer, he applied for it and got it. With surprisingly few regrets he had left the city where he had lived all his adult life, packed up his books and his fish tanks, and come here.

Hawkin woke, as he always did outside of his own bed, without disorientation, his thoughts continuing where they had left off. In this case they ran a close parallel with those going through Kate's mind. Hawkin strongly suspected that he, the new boy, had been thrown this very sticky case in order to save the necks of the higher-ups. He was an outsider, easily sacrificed, in the event of failure, on the altar of public opinion. If he failed, well, they would say, he was so highly recommended by his former colleagues, but I guess we were asking too much of a guy who doesn't know the area. If he succeeded, it would, he was sure, be arranged to reflect well on the judgment of those who chose him. Perhaps it wasn't entirely fair to be so suspicious of their motives—after all, the department was short-handed at the moment, and he did have a couple of very successful kidnapping cases to his credit, so he was the logical one to take this one. He knew, however, that there was a certain amount of time-buying going on, and he'd been given the prominence, in the face of a near-hysterical public and the considerable force of Mrs. Donaldson, while the department above him decided what it wanted to do. Disturbing, but he'd probably have done the same. No, he corrected himself, he probably wouldn't. Al Hawkin liked to be in the middle of things. He'd just have to make damn sure he succeeded.

He wondered if this reserved, almost pretty, alarmingly young police inspector at his side might turn out to be as competent as her record and her driving seemed to suggest. He hoped to God she was, for both their sakes. Hawkin squinted up at the heavy sky and sighed, thinking of Los Angeles.

"Looks like you're right," he said aloud, and missed her surprised look as he stretched over the back of the seat for his hat. "Is that coffee?" he asked, spotting the thermos on the back floor.

"Yes, help yourself. There's a cup in the glove compartment."

"No sugar?"


"Oh well, can't be helped," he allowed, and slurped cautiously. "Good coffee. How'd you have time to make it?"

"I didn't. I have a friend."

"Must be a good friend, to make you coffee at five-thirty in the morning."


"Well, he makes decent coffee, but next time have him throw some packets of sugar in for mine."

Kate opened her mouth, and shut it again firmly. Time enough for that, another day. Other matters pressed.

"About the body—who found it?" she asked.

"One of the women on the Road, Terry something, Allen maybe. She's a nurse, works the odd day in town, always weird hours. She leaves her two dogs at Tyler's place, at the beginning of the Road, and walks home. At two in the morning, can you believe it? Anyway, a couple miles up the Road the dogs started getting jumpy at something down the hill, and at first she thought it was a skunk or a raccoon, but her flashlight caught it, and it was the girl. She woke a neighbor and sent him down to Tyler's to phone while she stayed with the body. That's all I know. We'll interview her at Tyler's later. I told Trujillo—the local man on the case?—to round up everyone on the Road and bring them down. We couldn't possibly do a door-todoor—it'd take us a week."

"The Road is bad? Is that why the woman has to walk home?"

"Wasn't that in the stuff I gave you yesterday? Maybe I never bothered putting it into the case notes. Anyway, the whole area is owned by one John Tyler. Nice fellow, but a bit eccentric even by California standards—he regards himself as some kind of modern-day country squire living on a landed estate, with overtones of an ecological garden of Eden. No electrical lines into the area, no telephones, and cars allowed up the Road only two days a week. More than seventy people up there, some of them nine miles from a telephone, along an old fire road that washes out every third year."

"Sounds fun," said Kate, wondering how her car was expected to tackle that.

"Doesn't it? All the inconveniences of modern life with none of the benefits. It does limit the field considerably, though. There are locked gates at both ends of the Road—locks changed a few months ago, residents have the only keys—and the body was found about two and a half miles up."

"Was yesterday one of the days cars were allowed?"

"Trujillo says yes, and that people who work in town tend to shop for groceries and such those days and drive up at night, so nobody pays much attention to cars on Monday nights."

"Great. Well, if it's a dirt road there should be tracks left, if they get to them soon."

"Depends on what time they were put there. They had rain here after midnight. Yeah," he said, seeing her expression, "it goes like that sometimes."

"Maybe we'll luck out. Do you know if this is the same Tyler who runs a big medieval weekend every year? It seems to me it's held at a place called Tyler's Barn, everyone in costume, archery contests, that kind of thing."

"Sure to be. The place is bristling with lances and broadswords and God knows what. Here we are. And somebody's tipped the press."


It was an impressive sight, despite the ominous and growing cluster of press vehicles lined up on the seaward side of the paved road, from beat-up sedans to two shiny vans whose letters proclaimed their channels and whose silver mobile transmitters jutted toward the lowering sky. Tyler's Barn sat on the edge of a twenty-acre clearing, which at this time of year was green enough to be called a meadow. Two huge, pale horses turned their rumps to the human fuss and grazed. Hills covered in redwoods rose dramatically beyond. There actually was a barn, though from here it was nearly hidden behind a big, old wooden house (lodge was the word that came to mind) and a vast, open-sided shed with a rusting, corrugated metal roof draped with leafless vines. The shed seemed to be filled with automobiles and farm machinery, but from the Road it was nearly obscured by the high wire fence, intertwined with more bare vines, that had lined the Road for the last few miles and that continued solidly around the next curve, broken only, Kate saw now, by three gates.

The first gate was a simple, sturdy metal affair wide enough for a truck, and from it the double ruts of a dirt track climbed through the meadow to disappear into the trees. The gate was mounted on a pair of what looked like telephone poles, from which was suspended a tired wooden sign, the width of the gate, which proclaimed this as TYLER'S ROAD. A heavy chain and padlock held the gate shut, and a man with a uniform and regulation rain slickers, sitting in a police car, ensured it stayed that way.


Excerpted from A Grave Talent by Laurie R. King. Copyright © 1993 Laurie R. King. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Grave Talent 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 33 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
An excellent book I¿d heartily recommend to anyone interested in mysteries/thrillers with an art twist. It is a San Francisco police investigation, revolving around a famous female artist, Vaun Adams, who has been in jail (under another name) for the murder of a child. When three more little girls are murdered near her current home, a hippie enclave, she¿s the logical suspect. But the detectives almost immediately conclude that she was wrongly convicted the first time, and is the victim of a frame by someone who hates her. The art elements (the description of her work, of her studio, and of her) as well as the characterizations, settings, private lives, motivations and detection are handled extremely well. The identification of the criminal, and the police pursuit of Vain Adam¿s enemy, trying to catch him before he can kill again, is packed with suspense. As far as I know, King has not written again about the art world. I wish she would. I think I¿ve read every art-related mystery still in print, and a lot that aren¿t, and this is one of the best. She includes the perfect amount of information about art and the artist, enough so the reader has a sense of it, an understanding of the plot, but not enough to bore the reader.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I ran out of Mary Russell novels so I bought this. Ms King is an artist and I can't wait for more of either series.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a great mystery. Fun, fast paced, and it had me guessing up to the end who the killer was. When I finally found out who did it, I was really surprised.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Just have to comment on the review that stated "I had enjoyed the book up until the point when you discover Kate is a lesbian. I was thoroughly disgusted, and immediately returned the book to the library, 'where I had borrowed the book." You've got to be kidding! Right up until the day she realized she was in love with her best friend (who is a woman), Kate slept around A LOT with men. That didn't disgust you? Didn't bother you a bit, eh? Jeez. So, on to my own review: This is the first LRK book that I read, and I plan to get all the rest! Loved it (except for one little thing at the end, and I hope the author "fixes" it in the next books)!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Kate Martinelli is an excellently developed character, and exactly the type of person with whom I best get along. I really enjoyed the story line, although it is of the type where you know the ending before you get there if you have read many books that are similar (thus 4 stars instead of 5). There are books that are good to read and there are books that keep you on the edge of your seat, and then there are books like this that you just want to know that the characters are okay in the end, because they have become your friends!
ohiogirlAR More than 1 year ago
I thought I would try to get into the Kate Martinelli series, since I do like serials. I had a hard time staying focused on it and made myself forge on to the end. Some of it was downright ridiculous, particularly the excessive descriptions that were read just from looking into ones eyes. Did they have mental telepathy or something??? It got quite redundant and very farfetched. I got pretty bored most of the time and thought it lacked suspense. And other parts caused me confusion. All in all, I am passing up on continuing the #2 of the series.
edofarrell More than 1 year ago
The professionals have written the detailed reviews you need to have a clear idea of the thrust of the novel. It is a worthy -- as seen by the awards it won -- first novel. But it grows tiresome at some points and frankly I'm not all that titillated by gay police officers, maybe there was more of an impact when the book was first written, but now one can barely call up a tepid yawn. The close of the novel, from denoument to final period takes, I kid you not, 97 pages of tedium; nearly a fourth of the book. I suppose it was intended to create tension and develop the characters more fully. It sent me into a paroxym of page turning, hoping for something of interest. A good three star novel, little more. If you like the genre or the author it is probably worth the money for the paperback version.
tehanu on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is my first non-dog-related book I've read in years, literally, and I enjoyed it! I read somewhere Laurie R. King being compared to P.D. James and I think I started reading it just to prove them wrong. She's not exactly P.D. James but I couldn't put the book down despite the fact that the setting was San Francisco/Bay Area where I grew up (I prefer unfamiliar settings).I like her characters and the intelligence they convey and her prose doesn't interfere with the plot's momentum.I'll be reading more of her books.
elwyne on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A good book, just too dark for my tastes.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
krsball on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
LOVED this book. Great series (Kate Martinelli) and one of my favorite authors.
siubhank on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I've been a fan of Laurie King for years, but it's taken me until now to read any of her books besides the Sherlock-Russell novels. To my very pleasant surprise, this is a great book, not that I'm surprised Laurie wrote a good book, but the subject matter is one I wasn't sure I wanted to pursue. This book introduces Detective Kate Martinelli, just promoted to Homicide and paired with a seasoned cop who's less than thrilled to be handed a green partner. Kate also happens to be in a long-term relationship with another woman. This issue isn't forced, it just is. Very well done.
neotradlibrarian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
My next excursion in rule breaking had no excuse from geography. King, whose Mary Russell series I admire greatly, sets Kate Martinelli firmly in today¿s San Francisco. The cases are the kind of police procedural that so many write. I expected more from this series since I found so much more in the Mary Russell series and hoped that she was able to maintain the level of writing.The series is very different, with the setting affecting the style, as it should. When Russell and Holmes cross swords, you expect verbal fireworks. When Kate and her cop partner spar, there are fireworks but the language is necessarily less lapidary. Not less well conceived, but less flamboyant. The book is an excellent start to a series, with great depth, which separates it from the run of the mill cop story. No emphasis of plot twists here, since the people are the plot and people don¿t twist as easily. The book was even moving at times, which is very hard to accomplish in this genre. It is a sign of the strength and appeal of the characters King has created. In short, this is another series I will read start to finish. Grafton¿s PI never caught my attention like this, nor the gory details of Cornwell¿s medical detectives. I enjoy good police procedurals, but this is much more. It triumphs over my reading rules on the strength of the writing.Thank you, Laurie King. I wish there were more like you.
RoseCityReader on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This mystery, the first of the Kate Martinelli series, does not have the most intricate plot, but the characters make it worth reading. Vaun Adams is a reclusive artist living in a neo-hippy community (not quite a commune) in the coastal mountains near San Jose. Because of her past troubles, she is the first suspect when three little girls are found murdered in the isolated community. Martinelli and her curmudgeony partner, Al Hawkin, dig into Vaun's past and learn they may have the story turned around. Like many "first in a series" novels, several characters are introduced with enough detail to make them interesting, but not filled out enough to make them really compelling. For instance, we learn a lot about Martinelli's personal history and private life, but we don't see her demonstrate any of the talent and intelligence that, supposedly, has made her a rising star in the San Francisco Police Department. She spends most of her time driving her partner or babysitting Vaun Adams. In Hawkins, on the other hand, we learn very little of his past or his personal life, but we see layers to his personality as he acts as a skilled interrogator, a compulsive workaholic, something of a ladies¿ man, and both a boss and friend to Martinelli. Hopefully, the characters will develop further in the later novels.
MrsLee on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Bother. One of the best books I've read in a long time and half way through I find out the detective has a lifestyle I cannot support. I had my suspicions from the beginning. Laurie King style, all is understated and not graphic. It has pathos, character, and reality. But I simply can't read her other Kate Martinelli books. It's like reading Ayn Rand, they write so well they make unbiblical thinking seem sensible and right. Oh well. I'll stick to her Mary Russell mysteries. Those of you who are not bothered by lifestyle choices will love these books.
acommonreader on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
#1 in the Martinelli Series. Her partner was a surprise. The detectives' logic in determining the murderer seems flawed, but the ending is alright, regardless. Liked the references to art.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is great mystery literature. It begins a little cliche, but by the end of the second chapter, I was hooked. The characters are unique and appealing...unless you are a psychiatrist. There are frank breaches of therapeutic boundaries, but, hey, it's fiction. The plot has twists and turns, a subtle hint or two will have you doubting your intuition. An odd thing I noticed is the writing style shifts in the last quarter of the book. I found it mildly annoying, but I'm glad I didn't stop! If I didn't already own such a huge pile of TBRs, I would be searching for the sequel.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Excellent mystery read. I enjoyed it enough to want to hide in my bedroom and hope no one inter room or found me until it was done. 
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