‘I want to be the king of American mysteries, not the queen, please’


Sue Grafton, whose detective novels’ titles spanned the alphabet, had reached Y – publishing Y Is For Yesterday in August last year

NEW YORK • Sue Grafton, a prolific author of detective novels known for an alphabetically titled series that began in 1982 with A Is For Alibi, died on Thursday night in Santa Barbara, California. She was 77.

Her daughter Jamie Clark, announcing the death on the author’s website and Facebook page, said Grafton had cancer.

With the publication of her latest book in August, Grafton’s alphabetical series had reached Y Is For Yesterday.

“She was adamant that her books would never be turned into movies or TV shows,” her daughter wrote. “And in that same vein, she would never allow a ghost writer to write in her name. Because of all of those things, and out of the deep abiding love and respect for our dear sweet Sue, as far as we in the family are concerned, the alphabet now ends at Y.”

Grafton’s husband, philosophy professor Steven Humphrey, said her illness had prevented her from making any progress on the planned final book in the series, although she did have the title.

“She always said that the last book would be Z Is For Zero,” he said. “She’d been saying that for 30 years.”

Sue Taylor Grafton was born April 24, 1940, in Louisville, Kentucky. Her father was a lawyer who wrote mystery novels, her mother a chemistry teacher. Both were alcoholics.

“Every morning,” Grafton wrote in a 2013 memoir, Kinsey And Me, “my father downed two jiggers of whiskey and went to the office. My mother, similarly fortified, went to sleep on the couch. From the age of five onward, I was left to raise myself, which I did as well as I could, having had no formal training in parenthood.”

Grafton first married at 18. She had two children and was divorced before she graduated from the University of Louisville in 1961. Her first two novels were set in Appalachia, one of which, The LollyMadonna War, was made into a 1973 film starring Rod Steiger and Jeff Bridges. She moved to Hollywood, wrote screenplays and held secretarial jobs in film studios.

Grafton’s second marriage ended in protracted divorce and custody proceedings that, she later said, helped her devise methods of murder for her novels.

“We all think about murdering another person on occasions,” she told The Guardian in 2013. “What matters is not acting on that impulse. I’m lucky to have fictional characters to do it for me.”

She had actually written seven novels before she began the alphabet series.

“Of those, No. 4 and 5 were published,” she told The Star Tribune. “The rest are in the trash.”

A Is For Alibi was her eighth book and, she said, “my ticket out of Hollywood”. The notion of the alphabetical series, she said, was inspired by The Gashlycrumb Tinies, Edward Gorey’s macabre 1963 rhyming book in which 26 children meet bizarre ends.

“I was smitten with all those little Victorian children being dispatched in various ways,” she told The New York Times in 2015. “‘A is for Amy who fell down the stairs; B is for Basil assaulted by bears; C is for Clara who wasted away; D is for Desmond thrown out of a sleigh.’ Edward Gorey was deliciously bent.”

Her book series features Kinsey Millhone, a private investigator, whom A Is For Alibi introduced this way: “My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed by the state of California. I’m 32 years old, twice divorced, no kids. The day before yesterday I killed someone and the fact weighs heavily on my mind.”

Grafton studied the works of earlier mystery writers, including Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and especially Ross Macdonald, and considered herself a direct descendant of mystery-writing royalty.“I want to be the king of American mysteries,” she told the Chicago Tribune in 1992. “Not the queen, please. I want to be the king.”

By the time she got halfway through the alphabet, she may have earned her crown. Her publishing advances were in the millions, and each new novel had a hardcover print run of 500,000 copies. She lived on a multi-million-dollar California estate.

Most of her books are set in California in the 1980s, but they sometimes range deeper into the past and examine human character as deeply as any clues that might solve a crime. Critics noted that the stories often had an undercurrent of tender observation seldom found in the hard-boiled fiction of male writers. In U Is For Undertow (2010), a chubby boy, mourning the death of his mother, eats a cold grilled cheese sandwich: “Because of his braces, he couldn’t bite down on a sandwich without getting bread sludge stuck in the wires, so he broke off bites one at a time, thinking of her.”

In addition to Humphrey, her third husband, whom she married in 1978, and Clark, her daughter from a previous marriage, Grafton is survived by another daughter and a son, four granddaughters, a greatgrandson and a sister.

Grafton was forever being asked how much of her was in Kinsey Millhone and she acknowledged that there was a sort of alter-ego connection between author and character. But, she noted to The Seattle Times in an interview in August, there was one big difference: She realised early in the series that if she was going to write the entire alphabet, Kinsey could not age in real time and still be limber enough for a fastmoving detective yarn.

“When I started, she was 32 and I was 42,” Grafton said. “And now she’s 39 and I’m 77, which I just do not think is fair.”


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 01, 2018, with the headline '‘I want to be the king of American mysteries, not the queen, please’'. Print Edition | Subscribe