Written by: Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons
Her name was Sue Grafton. She was seventy-seven years old. She had gray hair and a friendly face.
Grafton started off as a screenwriter but ended up writing mysteries. She created Kinsey Millhone, a tough broad who drove a yellow VW, was loyal to her landlord Henry, and always got the bad guy at the end. Starting in 1982, her adventures went down the alphabet: From A Is For Alibi to Y Is For Yesterday, and from the beginning Kinsey ruled the bestseller lists.
In order to know about Kinsey, you need to know about the woman who created her. Born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, Grafton grew up loving books (she later told People magazine while her peers were reading Nancy Drew, she was reading Mickey Spillane); she loved her parents but also feared them: they were both alcoholics. She later told The Guardian it wasn’t a coincidence Kinsey’s parents died in a car crash when she was five; Grafton felt her childhood ended when she was five, becoming the caretaker of her parents and her little sister. By the time she was twenty, she was married and had a baby girl named Leslie.
Around the same time, her mother committed suicide and Grafton channeled her grief by writing short stories. She based the characters on her family of origin, writing about the drinking that ruined the family. At first, she didn’t have luck with fiction, so she tried screenwriting. She wrote several TV movies: Sex and the Single Parent, Mark, I Love You, and Nurse. She also adapted several Agatha Christie novels into TV movies. She divorced her first husband, married again and had a son named Jay, then another daughter Jamie. The second marriage ended terribly, so she started imagining how to kill her husband. Then she thought Hey! Why don’t I write this stuff down?
She knew the mysteries had to have a hook. Kinsey had to stand out. On her website, she said she was inspired by an alphabet picture book by Edward Gorey, where Gorey had pictures of people dying in different ways. She sat down, then did stream of consciousness writing where she thought of crime-related words. Alibi! Burglar! Corpse! She started with Alibi, then created Kinsey. She set the story in Saint Teresa, a town inspired by Santa Barbara, which was also a nod to Ross MacDonald, who set his novels in a Saint Teresa).
In 1982, Alibi was published, but sadly, Grafton’s father died months before its publication.
With each book, we learned more about Kinsey: After her parents’ deaths, she was raised by her aunt Virginia (known for her nickname Gin) she drifted in high school and college, then decided to become a police officer. But she didn’t like the job, so she started doing detective work for Aunt Gin’s workplace California Fidelity. She became a Private Investigator, her uniform being jeans and sweaters. For exercise, she jogged. She adored her landlord Henry, so much so she scared off a gold-digger love interest away. She would never admit it, but she became teary at Henry’s brother’s wedding to Rosie, the tavern owner where Kinsey had her meals.
I can’t remember all the mysteries Kinsey solved in detail, I just remember how she always did her job and did her job well. Because of her parents’ deaths at such a young age, she wanted to be alone. She did make a friend in one book during a case, but the woman was killed. She also had ongoing love interests in fellow P.I. Robert Dietz and police officer Cheney Phillips, but at the end of the book, she usually was alone, which was fine by her.
Kinsey Millhone made Grafton a star, however, she remained steadfast on one issue: Kinsey wouldn’t be seeing herself on the silver screen. Grafton made it known she felt that writers weren’t respected in Hollywood. Besides, she didn’t need the money. Kinsey made her enough money that she and her third husband Steven Humphrey could live comfortably in Montecito, California and Louisville, Kentucky. That was enough for her.
When I heard Grafton died, it felt like a suckerpunch to the stomach. I haven’t read Y is for Yesterday yet, which will be the last book of the series.
Though the series never made it to Z, I know Kinsey will be okay. She always turned out okay–a little bruised, but okay.
And somehow, we’ll be okay, too.
Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons