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Sue Grafton is often credited with introducing the hard-boiled woman detective. Her popular female detective, Kinsey Millhone, appeared initially in 1982 in A””Is for Alibi, the beginning of a highly successful mystery series in which each new book is titled alphabetically. With copies of her books available in twenty-six different languages, and each new book reaching the best-seller list after initial publication, Grafton clearly holds a secure place as a monumental writer and renovator of the mystery genre.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Growing Up Fast
Sue Taylor Grafton was born in Louisville, Kentucky, April 24, 1940, to Cornelius Warren Grafton and Vivian Harnsberger Grafton. She was the second of two children, three years younger than her sister, Ann. Her father was a successful municipal-bond attorney, and her mother was a former high school chemistry teacher. Both parents were devoted lovers of literature, and the house was full of a wide variety of books, which the girls were encouraged to read. From her parents she learned a love of the written word and the pleasure of exploring ideas.
From her parents, however, Grafton also learned more painful lessons about human nature and personal relationships. Both parents were alcoholics. From the time that Sue was five years old, until her mother died fifteen years later, her mother lived in a nonfunctioning state of alcoholic stupor, with only periodic bouts of recovery. Her father drank a couple of jiggers of whiskey in the morning and headed out to work, leaving his daughters to fend for themselves and for their mother. Without adult guidance, Grafton did pretty much whatever she wanted to, which she credits as the perfect training for her writing career. Grafton began to write, both as a way to understand her daily life and as a way to escape from it. Writing became a way for her to ground herself.
Love, Marriage, and Tragedy
With dreams of becoming a writer, Grafton attended the University of Louisville where she majored in English. In 1959 Grafton transferred to Western Kentucky State Teachers College where she met and married her first husband, James L. Flood. She was only eighteen years old when they were wed. Their first child, Leslie, was born in January 1960, but the marriage was already beginning to break apart. Less than four months after Leslie’s birth, Grafton’s mother, stricken with cancer, committed suicide on Graf-ton’s twentieth birthday. Grafton’s second child, Jay, was born in 1961. Grafton went on to finish her studies at the University of Louisville. Soon afterward, when her son was only four months old, she and James Flood divorced.
Making Ends Meet
Grafton began graduate studies in English in 1961 at the University of Cincinnati. However, she did not like graduate school. She despised the intense analysis that she considered to be leaching the lifeblood out of literature. She left the program, more determined than ever to become a writer and to do it her own way. In the years that followed, Grafton worked a variety of jobs to pay the bills while she wrote short stories and novels at night. Ready for a relationship again, she married Al Schmidt in 1962. Her third child, Jamie, was born in 1966. At home with her children during the day, and working nights and weekends, Grafton continued to write. She wrote seven novels during the 1960s. She managed to publish her fourth and fifth works, Keziah Dane in 1967 and The Lolly Madonna War in 1969. In 1972 MGM studios bought the movie rights to The Lolly Madonna War for $25,000, the largest single amount Grafton had yet received for her writing, enough to suggest that she could make a living as a writer.
Success and Stability
Grafton’s personal life wasn’t going well, as her second marriage was crumbling. Selling the movie rights to The Lolly Madonna War gave her enough financial security to leave her second husband in 1972. She and Schmidt went through a bitter divorce. In fact, twelve years later when she published her first mystery novel she claimed that the specific impetus for the plot came out of her frustrations and anger over the custody fights she was still engaged in with Schmidt. Through the 1970s, Grafton continued to get work writing for television and movies. In 1974 she met Steven Humphrey and realized they were a good match. In 1975 Humphrey went to Ohio State University to begin the doctoral program in philosophy, and the following year Grafton joined him there, continuing to write screenplays and teleplays while living in Columbus. They were married in 1978 and have had a supportive, strong, and secure relationship for more than twenty years.
In this same period of growing personal stability in the late 1970s, Grafton also came to some major decisions about her writing career. She was comfortably successful as a screenwriter and thought she could continue to earn money in this way, but, again, she needed to be able to write her own way. Around 1977 she decided to focus on her solo writing. After her husband received his degree in 1981, they moved to Santa Barbara, where Grafton completed the first novel in the mystery series, “A” Is for Alibi, in 1982. For readers and reviewers alike the major appeal of the novel lies in the irrepressible central character, detective Kinsey Millhone. Kinsey Mill-hone is a professional private investigator who narrates the novels. She is a tough loner with few possessions, and a wisecracking cynic who plays along the edges of legality in her investigations. She willingly picks locks, steals mail, and tells lies. Yet, there is a core of morality unique to the detective for which she will unhesitatingly risk bodily harm. Millhone’s dry wit, her combination of bravery and vulnerability, and her gritty determination to solve the case engaged audiences around the world.
An Alphabet of Millhone
Grafton took three years to produce the second novel in the series. “B” Is for Burglar appeared in 1985, after which a Millhone novel appeared annually through “M” Isfor Malice, published in 1996. Beginning with “N” Is for Noose (1998), Grafton began to slow the pace to every eighteen months in order to ensure that she could maintain the quality of the work. Each novel had a larger first-edition print run than the previous one. Grafton continues to work her way through the alphabet and has declared that the last one will be titled “Z” Is for Zero. She claims that each book is the most difficult she has ever written. However, she has been able to sustain her series by continuing to find new situations for Millhone, new questions about human behavior for her to explore, and by letting Millhone evolve as a character. Grafton shares time between her homes in Montecito, California, and Louisville, Kentucky, where she gives classes and continues to write. After she published “”T Is for Trespass in 2007, only six letters in the alphabet remained for the completion of the alphabet series.
Works in Literary Context
Grafton writes in the tradition of hard-boiled detective fiction, popularized by writers such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, but she expands and revises the genre through a rich exploration of the psychology that lies behind the detective’s actions, as well as the actions of other figures in her novels. She cares deeply about the private life and thoughts of her protagonist Kinsey Mill-hone. This psychological exploration may be explained through Grafton’s own psychological journeys and the realization that Kinsey Millhone is Grafton’s alter ego.
A New Style of Hard-Boiled Mystery
Around 1977, when Grafton decided to concentrate on writing novels, she relished the idea of creating a female version of Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled private eye Sam Spade, the type of private eye who relies on grit and brawn more than wits and intellect. After years of writing, however, Grafton has moved from considering the hard-boiled genre a form of escapist literature, with an emphasis on the tough persona of the detective as a figure of fantasy, to a belief that the detective novel allows for an examination of social issues. Her novels repeatedly explore issues of class divisions, corruption in the systems intended to permit society to function (such as the judiciary or health care systems), and divisive attitudes, such as ageism and homophobia. One theme receiving the most consistent and biting attention in her novels is a study in the many ways families can fail their members. The predominance of Grafton’s theme of family pain and her abiding interest in the dark side of human motivations are not unexpected if one considers the author’s own life, especially her troubled childhood.
The Alter Ego
Grafton is unusual among writers in that she openly calls her central character her alter ego. She writes in Kinsey and Me (1992) that she sees Kinsey as ”a stripped-down version of my ‘self … a celebration of my own freedom, independence and courage.” In one of the many parallels that can be drawn between Graf-ton’s experience and that of her protagonist, a major family shift occurred when Grafton was five years old and her father returned from World War II, and her mother began to drink heavily. This is the same age at which Kinsey’s parents died in a car accident. Grafton felt abandoned when her father left most of his estate to her stepmother. So it is no surprise that Kinsey Millhone fears abandonment above all else in life. Grafton’s mapping of her own experience onto Kinsey’s psyche is obvious, not only in the fear of abandonment but also in having Kinsey’s parents’ deaths close to her birthday, just as her own mother took her life on Grafton’s birthday.
Works in Critical Context
Kinsey Millhone first appeared in 1982 in “A” Is for Alibi, beginning the highly successful series that continued with alphabetical titles. More than halfway through the alphabet and with more than 42 million copies of ”A” through ”T” sold in the United States alone, Grafton can be considered a successful innovator of the hard-boiled mystery genre.
“A” Is for Alibi
Grafton published “A” Is for Alibi with a first-edition run of six thousand copies. She dedicated the novel to her father, who died just prior to its publication. It won the second Mysterious Stranger Award from the Cloak and Clue Society in Milwaukee, an award in the shape of a witch, which still perches on her computer as she writes. It was considered a well-crafted mainstream novel, rich in sensory details and complex characters. The plot twists are fast-paced and satisfying, and the dialogue has both realism and snap. The conclusion of the novel, however, came in for some negative commentary from reviewers. Stung by a few of the reviews, Grafton took three years to produce the second novel in the series.
“O” Is for Outlaw
Kinsey becomes highly introspective in the novel “O” Is for Outlaw (1998). In one of the biggest surprises in the series, Grafton forces Kinsey to reevaluate leaving Mickey, her husband: She had walked out in 1972 when he asked her to give him an alibi for a night when he was accused of beating a suspect to death. By denying this, Kinsey later discovers that she may have contributed to Mickey’s demise as he quit the police, drank too much, and lived and worked in shabby circumstances.
Admirably, Kinsey’s persistent drive to balance the scales includes herself. If she was wrong about Mickey, she must seek his forgiveness and try to make it right. Emily Melton, in her review, welcomed “O” Is for Outlaw as a reversal of the leveling off she saw in Grafton’s earlier novels. She says it is ”a novel of depth and substance that is, in every way,” the best of the series.
- Christianson, Scott. Feminism in Women’s Detective Fiction. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995.
- Hevener Kaufman, Natalie, and Carol McGinnis Kay.b”G” Is for Grafton: The World of Kinsey Millhone. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1997.
- Hoyser, Elizabeth. Great Women Mystery Writers: Classic to Contemporary. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.
- Irons, Glenwood. Gender, Language, and Myth: Essays on Popular Narrative. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.
- Klein, Kathleen Gregory. The Woman Detective: Gender and Genre. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.
- Franklin, Barbara H., ”’W’ Is for Writer.” University of Louisville Alumni Magazine, Fall 1995.
- Schaffer, Rachel. ”Grafton’s Black Humor.” Armchair Detective (Summer 1997).
- ”Sue Grafton: Author of the Kinsey Millhone Mysteries.” Retrieved November 23, 2008, from http:// www.suegrafton.com/.
- Collins, R. D. ”The Hard Boiled School of Detective Fiction: A Brief History.” Retrieved November 20, 2008, from http://www.classiccrimefiction.com/ hardboiled.htm.
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