“She 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!”
Grafton, on the phone from her home in Montecito, California, 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 in 2019.
And 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 index cards.
“When 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.”
I’ve 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.
Grafton’s 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 Kentucky.
But 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 collaborative writer.”
But 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.
Grafton, 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.
“I 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 like.”
“A 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.”
Those 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.”
Still, 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.”
While 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.)
And 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.
In “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.
“I 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.”
And 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.”
One 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.
Indeed 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.”