is my alter ego," says Sue Grafton of her fictional
heroine, Southern California private detective Kinsey
Millhone. "I’m an introvert, so doing half of
what Kinsey is beyond my poor capabilities. But it’s
fun to get to live her life without penalty!"
on the phone from her home in Montecito, Calif., is the
best-selling author of what’s known to countless
mystery fans as "the alphabet series." The
project has become Grafton’s life’s work, beginning
with "A Is for Alibi" in 1982 and continuing
through this month’s publication of "Y Is for
Yesterday" (Putnam, $29). The final book in the
26-volume series, "Z Is for Zero," will be out
while the rest of us have aged several decades, Kinsey’s
gotten only a few years older. Early on, Grafton said,
she realized that even if she wrote a book a year,
"after 26 years (Kinsey’s) going to be way too
old to be running around hitting bad guys with her
pocketbook. I thought I’d better keep her credibly
young, so she ages one year for every two and a half
books." Kinsey, therefore, is still in the 1980s,
researching and solving crimes with shoe leather and
I started, she was 32 and I was 42," said Grafton.
"And now she’s 39 and I’m 77, which I just do
not think is fair."
long considered Kinsey — a tough, funny loner with an
efficiency apartment, a gentlemanly landlord, an
all-purpose dress and a mind like a precisely ticking
watch — to be a friend, and wait eagerly for each new
alphabet installment. So it was a kick to chat with her
creator, whose Kentucky roots are evident in her lilting
voice, and whose conversation has the wry irreverence
that makes Kinsey irresistible.
similarities to Kinsey don’t extend to her personal
life: The author has a husband, children and
grandchildren (including a granddaughter named Kinsey),
and divides her time between homes in California and
like so many authors, hers is no overnight success
story: After graduating from the University of
Louisville, she headed to Los Angeles and spent 15 years
working as a writer in film and television. "I was
miserable," she said. "I am not a
she’d long thought, in the back of her mind, of
writing detective fiction like her father, who’d had
to give it up when "he couldn’t make a dime at
it." He’d had the idea, like some other mystery
writers, of coming up with a theme to link his titles;
in his case, a nursery rhyme.
after writing seven non-mystery novels that went
nowhere, decided to try her hand at a detective. Around
that time, she happened to pick up a copy of Edward
Gorey’s Gothic children’s book "The Gashlycrumb
Tinies" ("A is for Amy who fell down the
stairs / B is for Basil assaulted by bears … ")
— and just like that, the alphabet series was born.
sat down and wrote out as many crime-related words I
could think of, and I began ‘A is for Alibi,’ "
Grafton said. "I didn’t have a contract, I’d
never written a mystery in my life. The fun of it! I had
nothing at stake, so I just flat out did what I felt
Is for Alibi," dedicated to Grafton’s father Chip
"who set me on this path," introduced us to
Kinsey and to the fictional city of Santa Teresa,
California, where most of the books are set. (It’s
basically Santa Barbara, Grafton said, "but I
change all the street names if it suits.") Of that
book, the tale of a murdered divorce lawyer whose young
widow — after serving time for the murder — hires
Kinsey to find out what happened, Grafton said, "I
still think that’s one of the sassiest ones."
years in film and television weren’t wasted:
"Hollywood taught me how to write dialogue. I
learned how to get into a scene and out of it, I learned
to do action sequences, and I learned how to structure a
story, and those things have served me so well."
don’t hold your breath for a Kinsey Millhone movie:
Grafton has long rejected the idea. "Why would I
trash my life’s work?" she said. "You’d be
so mad at me — you’d be looking at some actress and
thinking, that is so not Kinsey Millhone."
any book in the series could be read as a one-off, there’s
a real pleasure in reading them in order. Kinsey, though
her personality remains utterly and delightfully
consistent, grows as the series progresses; though
remaining fiercely independent, she’s slowly letting
more people — and, recently, a cat — into her life.
Her man problems, however, remain unsolved. (I, for the
record, am firmly Team Dietz.)
Grafton’s writing, razor-sharp from the first, has
grown as well; midway through the series, she gets more
ambitious, tackling multiple narrators, shifting
timelines and darker tones.
"Y Is for Yesterday," in which Kinsey gets
pulled into a decade-old case involving a sexual assault
at an elite private school, you get a sense of a
soon-coming final farewell, like the cast of a musical
assembling on stage for one last number. But Grafton
says she’s resisting bringing back too many old
characters — "Most of them have agreed to be in a
book on long sufferance; they never said they were going
to be in more than one!" — and that she doesn’t
yet know exactly how "Z Is for Zero" will end.
don’t plan these books in advance; I don’t
outline," she said. "My job is to stay out of
(Kinsey’s) way and let her do exactly what she feels
like doing, within reason." For €˜Z,’ which
she’s "just getting a sense of" now, she’s
not planning a grand finale. "I don’t want
fireworks, I don’t want to go out in a blaze of glory.
I think it should be a book like the others — a good
solid story and good detective work."
what will happen after 2019, when the series is done?
"I like the open road," said Grafton. "I
can’t picture doing another series. Kinsey would never
let me get away with it. I might do stand-alones, if I
can think of a story that would be suitable for a Kinsey
Millhone stand-alone, but I’m not going to bust my nut
trying to figure out how to make it work."
last question, which I can’t resist: Does Grafton,
like Kinsey, have an all-purpose dress? Kinsey’s only
dress (her daily uniform is jeans and a turtleneck) is a
seemingly magical, indestructible synthetic garment that’s
served her well for funerals, cocktail parties and the
like. It’s also, if memory’s correct, survived at
least one near-drowning no worse for wear.
she does. "It’s in my closet right here!"
Grafton said, laughing. "It’s a dress I bought in
Columbus in 1978. I paid $98 for it. If you prorate it,
it’s mere pennies a day. It still fits." She
keeps thinking she’ll wear it on a book tour, but her
children have begged her not to. "I think I’d be
better off in a miniskirt and tights; let’s just leave
it at that."