In honor of Mystery Month, I wanted to review my favorite mystery, but I couldn’t choose from the hundreds I have read and enjoyed over the years. I also couldn’t choose a favorite mystery author, so I decided to review the mystery writer who has most influenced my writing.
Sue Grafton was the daughter of mystery writer C.W. Grafton. Before she became a successful mystery writer, Grafton wrote screenplays for television movies. She wrote her first novel at age 22. Only two of her first seven novels were published, Keziah Dane and The Lolly-Madonna War. She destroyed the other five unpublished manuscripts.
Grafton was frustrated by what she felt was limited publishing success of her work, so she started writing screenplays and adapting novels for television movies. She adapted two of Agatha Christie’s novels, A Caribbean Mystery and Sparkling Cyanide and she co-wrote the screenplay, Lolly-Madonna XXX, based on her novel which starred Rod Steiger and Jeff Bridges. After honing her writing craft, she felt ready to return to writing fiction.
During a bitter six year divorce and custody battle, Grafton channeled her frustrations into writing ways to murder or maim her ex. With murder on her mind, Grafton returned to writing and decided to create a series around a hard-boiled female private investigator named Kinsey Millhone. She liked the idea of a unified theme for the titles of her series. She decided on the alphabet and began brainstorming crime-related words. Grafton started with A is for Alibi and planned to end her series with Z is for Zero.
In 1982, A is for Alibi was published. She created a fictional town, Santa Teresa, California based on Santa Barbara where she lived and though Kinsey was basically a loner, she had a small ensemble cast of colorful friends and rivals. Grafton received mixed reviews for the plot, but high praise for her character development and pacing of the story.
She split her time between Santa Barbara and Louisville Kentucky.
After G is for Gumshoe, Grafton was able to quit her job as a screenwriter to focus on writing fiction full time. In 2015, the year she published X, the only title that did not combine a letter with a word, she was diagnosed with cancer. She managed to complete Y is for Yesterday in 2017 before she passed away. Grafton did not want a ghostwriter finishing her work, so according to her family, “The alphabet now ends with Y.”
I decided the best way to honor Grafton’s work is to review the first and last books of her award winning series.
A is for Alibi introduces us to Kinsey Millhone, a twice divorced former police officer who now works as a private investigator in the fictional town of Santa Teresa, California. Kinsey, who is 32, rents a tiny apartment in the unattached garage of a retired baker named Henry. Henry, an attractive senior who supplements his retirement by baking for several local restaurants, often feeds Kinsey whose idea of cooking is limited to opening a can of soup or making peanut butter and pickle sandwiches. She also eats at a local Hungarian restaurant owned by a brusk senior named Rosie.
When she was five, Kinsey and her parents were involved in a car accident. She survived and was raised by her maiden Aunt Gin, her mother’s sister. Aunt Gin was eccentric. She didn’t cook, was ambivalent about fashion and make up and knew nothing about children, so she raised Kinsey to be independent and self sufficient from an early age.
Nikki Fife, the widow of murdered financier Laurence Fife, hires Kinsey to prove her innocence fifteen years after being convicted of his murder. Nikki wants Kinsey to find out who really tampered with Fife’s medication by substituting poisonous white oleander for the contents of one of his allergy capsules.
Kinsey remembers the case well. The evidence convicting Nikki was weak and mostly circumstantial. It was an unusual case because alibis didn’t matter. Fife could have ingested the pill at any time – the murderer only had to sit back and wait. Shortly after Fife died, an accountant in another city died in the same manner, but the police never bothered to connect the two cases.
Grafton writes in the first person narrative in the form of reports issued by Kinsey to her employer. Grafton’s ability to describe the people Kinsey interacts with and the places her investigation takes her offer the reader an incredibly visual experience as well as mental engagement trying to guess whodunnit.
Kinsey’s investigation leads her to Fife’s first wife and two children, his former business partners and his many former paramours – all with solid motives to want Fife dead. Kinsey makes a few missteps along the way including sleeping with Charlie Scorsoni, one of the suspects, and letting the real killer trace her movements which nearly costs her her life. But, she pulls it all together and manages to solve the case and save herself. An epilogue ties the story together. Kinsey is tough, competent and likable and after reading this book, trust me you’ll want to be part of her next adventure.
A is for Alibi is set in 1982 the same year of its publication and Y is for Yesterday, published in 2017, is set in 1989. Kinsey ages only seven years in the 25 books Grafton wrote in a 35 year period. I suspect Z is for Zero would have also been set in 1989 and the series would have ended on or before Kinsey’s 40th birthday.
Grafton made the decision to keep her character in the 1980’s. Kinsey operates sans personal computer, cell phone or internet access because Grafton wanted her character to do the legwork and have to piece her investigation together. Kinsey has to maintain a good working relationship with her former employers, the Santa Teresa police department, in order to get some of the information she needs. Kinsey has several relationships in the series, beginning with Charlie Scorsoni. She begins seeing Jonah Robb, a police officer who is separated from his wife, but later reconciles making their interactions awkward. Robert Dietz, another private eye, is the man Kinsey can’t seem to get out of her mind. Later in the series, she begins a relationship with Detective Cheney Phillips, a police detective and longtime friend. Both her ex-husbands make appearances in the series.
Along the way, Kinsey finds out more about her family and why her late Aunt Gin was estranged from them. She also learns how she came to have her unusual first name. Kinsey evolves as a person and becomes more social.
Jonah Robb and Cheney Phillips both appear in minor roles in Y is for Yesterday. Kinsey is hired to find a blackmailer threatening to release a videotape which could send a young man, recently paroled from prison for murdering his classmate, to prison for rape. She is back in her element delving into a past crime in order to protect the people whose lives it shattered. This case is eerily timely because it involves a cheating scandal at an elite prep school, a videotaped sexual assault, murder and cover up. Grafton combined details from two real life crimes committed in California in her plot.
The blackmailer has waited a decade to strike. Kinsey has to sift through the young lives derailed in the scandal to determine who has the best motive for blackmail and revenge. To complicate matters, the serial killer she sent to prison has escaped and he’s determined to finish the job he started on Kinsey. This time Kinsey has to rely on a little help from her friends to survive, but will it come in time? Can she find the blackmailer and prevent more suffering?
I purchased this book (I own A-Y) when it first came out. I knew Grafton was ill, but as a cancer survivor, I wanted to believe she would beat this and live to finish her series. I was busy working on This Awful Awesome Life and before I knew it 2017 was over and Grafton had passed away. There would be no Z. Knowing this would be the last time I would be invited into Kinsey’s world to sit in Henry’s kitchen while he bakes bread, go running on the beach with her, sip a Chardonnay at Rosie’s waiting to see what Rosie decides to serve us for the evening entrée, or wade headlong into a dangerous case seemed unbearable. I put this book away, but this issue seemed the perfect way to say goodbye and thank you to a woman who never compromised her vision for her work.
Grafton could have hired someone to help her finish the final book or she could have hastily thrown something together, but she wanted each book to be the best she had to offer. It’s also one of the reasons she never consented to letting the Kinsey Millhone Series be made into movies. After working as a screenwriter she knew her books would have to be changed – important scenes would be cut and someone would be selected to be Kinsey. Little details would be changed and a part of Kinsey would fall away. Grafton didn’t want that and as much as I hate to admit it, neither do I. RIP Sue Grafton. The alphabet does end at Y; Kinsey Millhone will be 39 forever and isn’t that every woman’s secret dream?
Books in the Kinsey Millhone Mystery series:
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 (2007)
U is for Undertow (2009)
V is for Vengeance (2011)
W is for Wasted (2013)
Y is for Yesterday (2017)
*Kinsey and Me (2013) is a collection of stories by Grafton that explain Kinsey's origins and Grafton's past. Nine stories in the first section of the book outline the fully formed character sketch of Kinsey that started the series. The next thirteen stories were written by Grafton in the ten years following her mother's suicide. They feature the character, Kit Blue, who is a younger version of Grafton. Kit’s stories relate the author's journey from anger to understanding and forgiveness. Through Kit, Grafton comes to terms with her troubled family life – her parents were both alcoholics and her mother committed suicide after surgery for esophageal cancer. Her father passed away a short time before A is for Alibi was published.
A is for Alibi book cover art: By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19294869
Y is for Yesterday book cover art: By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56171155