“I want to be the King of American Mysteries,” said Sue Grafton in 1992. “Not the Queen, please. I want to be the King.
Grafton, who died at the age of 77, was the best-selling crime novelist whose popular mysteries “Alphabet”, starring Southern California detective Kinsey Millhone, have sold millions of copies worldwide. .
A is for Alibi, published in 1982, was the first in his series of alphabetically titled novels. She reached the 25 letter of the alphabet with its last book, Y is for yesterday, last august.
After publishing two novels in the 1960s, Grafton went on to write screenplays before breaking through in the 1980s with his detective novels, which became instant bestsellers. Her background as a screenwriter and studio office worker gave her such a loathing for Hollywood manners that she refused to allow any of her Kinsey Millhone books to be made into movies or TV productions.
“My goal in life,” said Grafton, “is to write a perfect mystery.”
Grafton’s heroine, Kinsey Millhone, is a witty, hard-talking sleuth, orphaned at the age of five, whose emotional vulnerabilities are sometimes intertwined with the intrigue. Grafton viewed Kinsey as his alter ego – “well, not even a very alter,” she said.
The books, published in dozens of languages, have earned Grafton a large and dedicated readership, especially among women.
“I have come to believe,” wrote critic Patrick Anderson in The Washington Post in 2005, “that she is not only the most talented woman to write detective novels today, but also that, regardless of her gender, her Millhone books are in the top five or six series that a American has ever written ”.
During the 35 years that Grafton wrote on Kinsey Millhone, the character was only seven years old, going from 32 to 39. At the start of many books, Kinsey provides an eye-opening self-assessment that over the course of 25 novels adds to one of the most endearing, flawed, and memorable characters in modern detective fiction.
In G is for Gumshoe (1990), she notes: “My usual practice is to cut my own mop every six weeks or so with a pair of nail scissors. I do it because I’m too cheap to pay $ 28 in a beauty salon. I have hazel eyes, a nose that’s been broken twice, but still works pretty well I think. If I was asked to rate my appearance on a scale of 1 to 10, I wouldn’t.
In P is for peril, from 2001, she says a little more about herself: “I am a woman, 36 years old, divorced twice, childless and otherwise not crowded … I was a cop for two years at the start of the in my twenties, and through personal machinations too tedious to explain, I realized that law enforcement was not for me. I was far too cranky and uncooperative to adjust to departmental regulations… Also, the shoes were awkward and the uniform and belt made me look too wide.
Kinsey drives a VW, enjoys junk food, and carries a gun.
Grafton studied the works of earlier detective story authors including Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and most importantly Ross Macdonald, and considered himself a direct descendant of mystery writer royalty.
By the time she hit half the alphabet, Grafton may have earned her crown. His publishing progress was in the millions, and each new novel had a hardcover print run of 500,000 copies. She lived in a multi-million dollar California estate, in a much more lavish environment than Kinsey could afford. (Grafton’s heroine lived in Santa Teresa, a coastal California town that was Macdonald’s fictional creation in his Lew Archer detective story series.)
Most of Grafton’s books are set in California in the 1980s, but sometimes they delve deeper into the past and examine human character as deeply as any clue that could solve a crime. Critics noted that the stories often had an undercurrent of tender observation that is rarely found in the harsh fiction of male writers.
In the 2010s U is for Undertow, a chubby boy, mourning the death of his mother, eats a cold grilled cheese sandwich: both, thinking of her.
Sooner or later, however, Kinsey Millhone straightens her shoulders and looks at her world with a clear, hard gaze of fatalism. Snooping around in the retirement homes of G is for Gumshoe, and encountering too many dead-end lives, she admits to herself, “Maybe I would get lucky and get hit by a beer truck before being forced into such disgrace.”
Sue Taylor Grafton was born in Louisville, at the start of the World War II. Her father was a lawyer who wrote detective novels, her mother a chemistry teacher. Both were alcoholics.
“Every morning,” Grafton wrote in a 2013 memoir, Kinsey and I, “My father swallowed two glasses of whiskey and went to the office. My mother, also fortified, fell asleep on the sofa. From the age of five, I had to raise myself, which I did the best I could, having had no formal parenting training.
Grafton first married at 18. She had two children and divorced before graduating from the University of Louisville in 1961.
His first two novels are set in the Appalachians, one of which, The Lolly-Madonna War, was adapted into a 1973 film starring Rod Steiger and Jeff Bridges. She moved to Hollywood, wrote screenplays, and held secretary positions in movie studios.
Grafton’s second marriage ended in prolonged divorce and custody proceedings which she later said helped her design murder methods for her novels.
“We all think about murdering another person on occasion,” she said in 2013. “What matters is not acting on that impulse. I’m lucky to have some fictional characters to do it for me.
Survivors include her husband of over 40, philosophy professor Steve Humphrey of Santa Barbara; two children from his first marriage; a daughter from his second marriage; a sister; four granddaughters and a great-grandson.
Grafton was one book away from completing Kinsey Millhone’s final installment, which was reportedly called Z is for zero.
“As far as we are in the family,” her daughter wrote on the official Grafton website, “the alphabet now ends in Y.”
Sue Taylor Grafton, novelist, born April 24, 1940, died December 28, 2017