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In remembrance of Sue Grafton, who created memorable detective Kinsey Millhone, and left a remarkable literary legacy

Writer Sue Grafton, during an interview in Barcelona, Spain, in February 2015. (Toni Garriga/EFE / Tribune News Service)
Writer Sue Grafton, during an interview in Barcelona, Spain, in February 2015. (Toni Garriga/EFE / Tribune News Service)

“My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed by the state of California. I’m thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids. The day before yesterday I killed someone and the fact weighs heavily on my mind …”

– Sue Grafton, “A is for Alibi”

Why do so many of us read detective novels, putting ourselves into the worn shoe leather of obsessive loners determined to crack a case? I think it’s because there’s something appealing about looking at life as a mystery that can be solved. In a few hundred pages, a world is taken apart and neatly put back together again; we know who’s good and who’s bad and what happened. Life is rarely like this, but it’s nice to think that, somewhere, puzzle pieces are fitting together and loose ends are being tied up.

But there’s another reason: because we fall in love with a detective. My favorite fictional gumshoe has long been Kinsey Millhone, who first sprang from the pages of Sue Grafton’s alphabet series in 1982, in “A is for Alibi.” I discovered her, I think, sometime in the 1990s, maybe at G or H. Delighted with my find, I devoured the previous books and, once caught up, would eagerly await the next installment. Kinsey – funny, sarcastic, loyal, cheap, righteous, smart and utterly endearing – became a friend.

“Y is for Yesterday” came out last summer, and I had the great pleasure of interviewing Grafton over the telephone in August. Speaking in a lilting voice that instantly revealed her Kentucky roots, she was delightfully upbeat, and spoke of how Kinsey was her alter ego. (“It’s fun to get to live her life without penalty.”) She planned for “Z is for Zero” to be “a book like the others – a good solid story and good detective work,” and spoke happily of what she might do once the alphabet series was done.

Just before New Year’s, however, came terribly sad news: Grafton, at 77, had died, of cancer diagnosed two years ago. “Z” was not yet written, and never will be. “As far as we in the family are concerned,” wrote Grafton’s daughter in a Facebook post, “the alphabet now ends at Y.”

I’ll confess that I was looking forward to a tidy wrap-up of Kinsey’s adventures. Would she finally make peace with her family? Would she settle down with on-again, off-again beau Robert Dietz? Would her octogenarian landlord Henry, God forbid, die? But all of us who loved Kinsey – and, by extension, Grafton – are now faced with, well, real life. Projects don’t always get finished. Ends don’t always get tied up. And sometimes, we find ourselves missing people we’ve never met.

Grafton’s literacy legacy is remarkable. She was – along with Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller and others – a pioneer in creating an American genre of female-centered detective fiction in the 1980s. Her 25 Kinsey Millhone books can be read in order (a great pleasure), or as stand-alone novels; Grafton was careful, in every book, to reintroduce Kinsey to those who didn’t know her.

If you’re thinking of dipping into the series, the obvious advice is to start with “A.” (“I still think that’s one of the sassiest ones,” Grafton told me.) But I’ll confess a special fondness for “I Is for Innocent” (a fascinating, taut murder case), “L is for Lawless” (which becomes an almost-lighthearted road trip), and “S is for Silence,” in which Grafton first began playing with time-shifting and multiple narrators, to keep her series fresh.

I read “Y is for Yesterday” last summer, never thinking it would be Grafton’s last. Perhaps on some level Grafton thought it might be; in the book (a good read, though not her very best), many characters from Kinsey’s past popped up, seeming for a final goodbye. I’m grateful that I had a chance to talk to her, to thank her for the many hours of pleasure her books gave me – and will give me.

In “L is for Lawless,” Kinsey muses about the departure of three temporary co-conspirators. “In some curious way, they’d become my family. I’d seen us as a unit, facing adversity together, even if it was only for a matter of days. It’s not that I thought we’d go on that way forever, but I would have liked a sense of closure – thanks, fare-thee-well, drop us a line someday.”

Sometimes, you just don’t get that closure. Goodbye, Kinsey. I know we’ll meet again.


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