Like Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton (b. 1940 — d. 2017 ) developed a tough, feminist detective, in this case named Kinsey Millhone. The two authors’ first novels appeared within months of each other in 1982. Like Ross Macdonald, Grafton’s territory is Santa Barbara, California, depicted as “Santa Theresa.” However, Kinsey Millhone lives in the converted garage of octogenarian Henry Pitts, drives a beat-up Volkswagen, dresses in jeans and turtlenecks (she owns only one dress), eats junk food, and jogs for exercise.
Grafton was born in Louisville, daughter of a mystery writing attorney who stayed late at work to turn out his three novels. She grew up in the same neighborhood as “gonzo journalist” Hunter Thompson and was a few years behind him in the same school. She attended the U. of Louisville ( B.A. 1961) and worked as a hospital clerk, cashier and secretary before achieving literary success. She wrote two mainstream novels in the 1960s (Keziah Dane, 1967; The Lolly-Madonna War, 1969) and adapted the latter for M.G.M. in 1973. She did three other screen and tele-plays in the 1970s (including Rhoda, 1975), before writing her first mystery, A Is for Alibi in 1982. B Is for Burglar won her an Edgar and is regarded by some readers as her best. As the alphabetical titles of her novels indicate, Kinsey Millhone was meant to be a series character from the start.
According to her Wikipedia entry, “While reading Edward Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies, which is an alphabetical picture book of children who die by various means, she had the idea to write a series of novels based on the alphabet. She immediately sat down and made a list of all of the crime-related words that she knew.” By 1998 Millhone had been featured in fourteen novels. Just before she died, Grafton published Y” Is for Yesterday (2017).
More conventional than Paretsky’s, Grafton’s detective is a traditional heroine: a loner, with a code, who works for just causes. Vincent Patrick wrote in the New York Times that”Chandler’s concept of a detective hero was that ‘he must be the best man in his world, and a good enough man for any world.’ Gender aside, Kinsey fills that prescription perfectly.” Nor has Grafton redefined the genre, writes Ed Weiner in the Times Book Review: she plays “it fairly safe and conventional.” 1 She is sometimes contrasted with Robert B. Parker for her lack of violence; more significant, however, is the fact that in her revealed plots Grafton questions the received wisdom about gender-specific character traits. Other than this, most critics agree, she is not overtly feminist. Several recent novels, L Is for Lawless (1995) and M Is for Malice (1996), have been praised for their pace and humor. 2
Kinsey Millhone has collected a wide readership and is translated into Dutch, Russian, Polish, Spanish, and French. When Grafton’s novels were late to press in the early 1990s, because of the author’s illness and plotting problems, readers even called bookstores to complain. By 2007 the alphabet of Grafton novels had reached T: A is for Alibi, (1982);B is for Burglar (1985);C is for Corpse (1986);D is for Deadbeat (1987);E is for Evidence (1988);F is for Fugitive (1989);G is for Gumshoe (1990);H is for Homicide (1991);I is for Innocent (1992);J is for Judgment (1993);K is for Killer (1994);L is for Lawless (1995);M is for Malice (1996);N is for Noose (1998);O is for Outlaw (1999);P is for Peril (2001);Q is for Quarry (2002);R Is for Ricochet (2004);S Is for Silence (2005); T Is for Trespass (December, 2007).
Not only has Millhone continued to be a loner with a code, who works for just causes, but Grafton has resisted the genre’s recent trend toward increased violence. Grafton maynot stretch the genre, but her revealed plots insightfully question gender roles and explore social issues. In T is for Trespass (2007), for example, she alternates points of view between Millhone and the culprit, Solana Rojas, a “chameleon” who assumes the identities of others in order to steal from them.
1 Vincent Patrick, in Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, vol. 55, p. 200; original in New York Times Book Review, n.d., n.p. Ed Weiner, ibid. 2 Jean Swanson, “Sue Grafton,” in Mystery & Suspense Writers, editor Robin Winks (New York: Charles Scribner’s Son, 1998), vol. I, 446. Several of her novels have won awards, most going to F is for Fugitive (1989) and G Is for Gumshoe (1990). She has continued to write screenplays and to receive awards for them, including several with her third husband, philosophy professor Steven Humphrey.