The literacy legacy of Sue Grafton, who died Dec. 28, is remarkable. She was — along with Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller and others — a pioneer in creating an American genre of female-centered detective fiction in the 1980s.
“My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed by the state of California. I’m thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids. The day before yesterday I killed someone and the fact weighs heavily on my mind . . “
— Sue Grafton, “A Is For Alibi”
Why do so many of us read detective novels, putting ourselves into the worn shoe leather of obsessive loners determined to crack a case? I think it’s because there’s something appealing about looking at life as a mystery that can be solved. In a few hundred pages, a world is taken apart and neatly put back together again; we know who’s good and who’s bad and what happened. Life is rarely like this, but it’s nice to think that, somewhere, puzzle pieces are fitting together and loose ends are being tied up.
But there’s another reason: because we fall in love with a detective. My favorite fictional gumshoe has long been Kinsey Millhone, who first sprang from the pages of Sue Grafton’s alphabet series in 1982, in “A Is for Alibi.” I discovered her, I think, sometime in the 1990s, maybe at G or H. Delighted with my find, I devoured the previous books and, once caught up, would eagerly await the next installment. Kinsey — funny, sarcastic, loyal, cheap, righteous, smart and utterly endearing — became a friend.
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“Y Is For Yesterday” came out last summer, and I had the great pleasure of interviewing Grafton, over the telephone in August. Speaking in a lilting voice that instantly revealed her Kentucky roots, she was delightfully upbeat, and spoke of how Kinsey was her alter ego. (“It’s fun to get to live her life without penalty.”) She planned for “Z Is For Zero” to be “a book like the others — a good solid story and good detective work,” and spoke happily of what she might do once the alphabet series was done.
Just before New Year’s, however, came terribly sad news: Grafton, at 77, had died, of cancer diagnosed two years ago. “Z” was not yet written, and never will be. “As far as we in the family are concerned,” wrote Grafton’s daughter in a Facebook post, “the alphabet now ends at Y.”
I’ll confess that I…