Sue Grafton Was a Master at Subverting the Detective Novel

Photo: Chris So/Toronto Star via Getty Images

This won’t be an objective appraisal of Sue Grafton, who died today of cancer at the age of 77. I was a fan first, reading her Kinsey Millhone novels in high school and sticking with the series all the way to the end. I interviewed her twice: once for the Los Angeles Times in 2009, and four years later, onstage at the Toronto Public Library. I admired her ability to stick with her own voice, not let success go to her head, and to stretch herself in her writing. As the editor of two anthologies of 20th-century crime works by women that were published in 2013 and 2015, I was floored by her kindness in bestowing blurbs when she hardly did that sort of thing anymore.

Trailblazers don’t announce themselves upon arrival. Sue Grafton’s A Is for Alibi, the 1982 novel that introduced the world to private detective Kinsey Millhone, wasn’t seen as the pioneering achievement we now know it to be. Pseudonymous New York Times crime-fiction critic Newgate Callendar sniffed, “Will the series take hold? This first book is competent enough, but not particularly original.” Grafton proved him wrong over the next 35 years, gaining millions of readers in nearly 30 countries and languages.

Grafton belonged to a cluster of female authors who viewed the private-detective subgenre, previously dominated by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Grafton’s own hero, Ross Macdonald, in desperate need of subverting. The new detectives created by writers like Maxine O’Callaghan, Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky, and Grafton were not, as some critics insisted, simply their male counterparts in skirts. They were capable, confident, commanding. They were damn good at their jobs even if their private lives suffered. They valued their friends, their causes, their communities. They emerged from the distinct combination of second-wave feminism and 1970s American paranoia, seeing the world around them with a stark lack of sentimentality, unlike the romantic nobility of their male counterparts.

Kinsey, like Grafton, was an introvert. She was twice divorced, baffled by public displays of emotion, and quick to subsume herself in work. But Kinsey developed at a pace different from her creator. Time moved more slowly in her fictional town of Santa Teresa, for one thing; the latest of the alphabet books (published just a few months ago) is set in late 1988, only six years after the first.

Kinsey also went from being a resolute loner to accepting the love of her neighbors (especially the octogenarian Henry, who lived in a converted garage) and, by quirk and by fate, newly discovered family. Grafton seamlessly weaved the personal and the professional. Readers like me stuck around as much for the cases as for finding out what Kinsey was up to.

The quality I appreciated most about Grafton was her loyalty. She stuck with Kinsey Millhone and the alphabet series conceit for her entire career, but did not allow herself to stagnate as a writer. Kinsey’s first-person narrative gradually made room for other, third-person perspectives. Some of them were quite diabolical; I still remember the chill that ran up and down my spine while reading the sections of T Is for Trespass featuring Kinsey’s antagonist, a scarily effective psychopath lurking beneath the placid facade of caregiver.

Grafton was also loyal to those instrumental in keeping her career going. Authors don’t tend to stay with the same agents and editors over their entire lifetimes, but Grafton worked with Marian Wood, her editor at Putnam, from Kinsey’s first outing, and signed with Molly Friedrich, still her literary agent, with the publication of B Is for Burglar. Would Grafton have felt free to try new techniques instead of writing the same old book again and again if she hadn’t had the security of her publishing team? I, for one, don’t think so.

Loyalty manifested itself in one other important way. Grafton refused to sell the film and television rights to her books. She spent 16 years as a Hollywood screenwriter, the latter part with Steven Humphrey, her third and surviving husband. She saw firsthand how adaptations mess with a writer’s head. Grafton didn’t want someone else’s vision of Kinsey Millhone to compete with her own.

Grafton’s Y Is for Yesterday, published just this past August, ended up being her last novel. At nearly 500 pages long, it sprawls and stretches in ways that the earlier, more compact Kinsey installments did not. But Y also straddles the border between the contemporary and the historical, depicting 1979-era teens being cruel and violent toward each other in a way that was of its time, but is also timeless. In the novel, Grafton, once again, shows how technology changes and grows obsolete — a VHS sex tape drove the plot and Kinsey’s investigation — but human behavior never does.

Sue Grafton died too soon, but she remained in control till the end. Her family, in accordance with her wishes, stated that Kinsey Millhone would not return one more time. “As far as we in the family are concerned, the alphabet now ends at Y.” Grafton hadn’t yet begun writing the final book in the series, which was to be published in August 2019 as Z Is for Zero. That leaves us with Grafton’s last published words, as always both “respectfully submitted” and sharply delivered by Kinsey: “I’m not saying justice is for sale, but if you have enough money, you can sometimes enjoy the benefits of a short-term lease.”

That Sue Grafton fell short of completing the alphabet is cruel irony, but also strangely fitting. She spent so much of her career being asked if she would make it to the end. In 2009, I asked her if she even needed to. She was the author, the god of her writing. Surely she could stop whenever she liked?

“Well, I don’t know,” Grafton told me, a half-smile on her face. “When I started writing the series, who even knew this was going to work? Was that gall, was I being cheeky or not? For the first half of the alphabet, people bet I couldn’t [get to the end]. Now, they are rooting for me.”

We’re still rooting for her, and for Kinsey Millhone.

Sue Grafton Was a Master at Subverting the Detective Novel