G is for Grafton: Mystery writer Sue Grafton succumbs to cancer at age 77

January 2, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism, Private eye, writers, writing.

Writing A is for Alibi was Sue Grafton’s “ticket out of Hollywood.” It was a one-way ticket. She never allowed her work to return there.

Grafton, author of the Kinsey Millhone alphabet series, died at her home in California on Dec. 28, 2017, after a two-year battle with cancer and HCA from https://homecareassistance.com/los-gatos/. Two months before that, she had published the latest in her mysteries that played off the alphabet: Y is for Yesterday.

Grafton was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1940 and made her way west to California in the 1960s. After publishing a couple of novels, she became a screenwriter for television. She achieved some success in that medium, but the experience soured her permanently.

Sue Grafton

She would never sell the rights to the Kinsey Millhone series for any movie or television series.

“Ask me if I’d ever sell the film or TV rights to these books,” she said in a 2013 interview with The Minneapolis Star Tribune promoting “W Is for Wasted.” “No, I would not. I would never let those clowns get their hands on my work. They’d ruin it for everyone, me more than most.” (New York Times obituary: Sue Grafton, Whose Detective Novels Spanned the Alphabet, Dies at 77 – The New York Times

During her second divorce and the resulting custody battle, Grafton said she began to think of ways to kill people. Rather than act on those impulses, she thought about writing murder mysteries. She studied the greats — Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler — but it was Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer character that had the most effect on her.

What if Lew Archer were a female? How would that work?

Thus Kinsey Millhone was born, and Grafton brought her to life in A is for Alibi, which was published in 1982. Millhone was a tough-talking single woman (twice-divorced, no children) who expected very little out of life and didn’t always play by the rules. She was also vulnerable in ways that she revealed throughout her novels.

“I’m female, 36, twice divorced, childless and otherwise unencumbered . . . . I was a cop for two years early in my twenties, and through personal machinations too tedious to explain, I realized law enforcement didn’t suit me. I was way too crabby and uncooperative to adjust to department regulations . . . . Plus, the shoes were clunky and the uniform and the belt made my ass look too wide.” (from P is for Peril in 2001; quoted from the Washington Post obituary of Grafton)

A is for Alibi was an instant success — the world was obviously waiting for a tough-talking-but-tender PI, and Grafton never looked back. She was rarely off the best-seller lists, and her novels were translated into many languages.

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Grafton wrote with a simple, straightforward style that was neither fancy nor Chandler-esque. The voice she used perfectly suited the first-person character of Kinsey Millhorne. You could hear Kinsey talking to you in the words and phrases that Grafton employed.

As Grafton grew more confident about her writing, she grew more revealing. Her website has portions of the different journals she kept while she was writing her novels, and those are fascinating. Here’s a sample of what she wrote while putting together H is for Homicide:


Well, here I am, letting it all hang out…starting with a clean slate on “H”. I’ve floppied and deleted all my previous files, plus the two chapters I’d written.

Right Brain kept telling me the story wasn’t right. Not complex enough, not the proper chemistry. No visible route to action or tension. I’ve been arguing the point with myself for weeks, going first this way and that. RB would tell me I should dump the book and I’d agree. Then I’d go back and read my notes, read the two chapters I’d done and decide that it was workable despite my misgivings. Now I’ve come to the conclusion that it would be foolish to ignore my intuitions when the message has been so strong and so persistent.

Must go back and think about the focus for “H”.
Set aside some clippings from my previous go round.

“H” could be for:
Hot Prowl
Hit & Run

This morning RB suggested that maybe Kinsey meets a husband and wife bounty-hunter team on the trail of someone. Both are slain.

Might still play with the idea of someone who was an executioner for the state.

Must find the two page analysis I did on KILLSHOT. That might give me some direction…Found the break-down in my “G” directory. Really useful notes. (quoted from SueGrafton.comhttp://www.suegrafton.com/journal-display.php?ISBN13=9780312945657)

Grafton managed to live through 25 novels, getting all the way to Y is for Yesterday, published just a couple of months before her death. Her family said she had already selected the title for her next novel, Z is for Zero but had not begun any real work on it.

Sue Grafton, RIP.

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