M is for mystery Kinsey Millhone's creator: a woman of letters who's approaching mid-alphabet

May 05, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

WASHINGTON — 2009. Ten down, 16 to go.

It's not just letters that preoccupy Sue Grafton -- specifically, the letters that begin her best-selling mysteries. She began her series featuring detective Kinsey Millhone in 1982, with " 'A' Is for Alibi," and now, with the recent publication of " 'J' Is for Judgment," has worked her way through nearly half the alphabet.

No, it's a numbers game, too. She's 53. With 16 letters left, and by writing one book a year, Ms. Grafton figures she'll finish her ambitious series by the year 2009. It will be an endurance contest -- for her and her readers.

"I tell them, 'You better give up whiskey and cigarettes and wild women because you won't be alive when we get there,' " Ms. Grafton says, deadpan, and you see the source of Kinsey Millhone's trademark wisecracking style. "So they're all reforming."

She shakes her head and continues. "There's a woman named Helen who lives in a town somewhere in California, and she wrote to me after ' "E" Is for Evidence.' She said, 'I'm 74, and will you please hurry?' I wrote back, 'Helen, you'll only be 94, so it's no big deal.' Ms. Grafton looks up and continues with a sly smile. "She told me she's cutting back on her beer, but I think she's making that up."

Ms. Grafton had spent years as a writer for TV movies ("Sex and the Single Parent," "Nurse") when, unhappy with Hollywood and what it was doing to her writing, she began to write a mystery about a street-smart, sassy female detective.

"I used to be in such a rage about Hollywood," Ms.Grafton says, settling into a sofa in the lobby of a Washington hotel during a publicity swing last week. "But then I said to myself, 'If it bothers you that much, don't take the money.' So I quit taking the money, and I invented Kinsey Millhone as a way of getting out."

She set her book in Santa Teresa, a thinly disguised version of Santa Barbara, Calif., where she had lived for several years (and to where she has since moved back). She was 42 when "Alibi" came out, and some readers and reviewers didn't know what to make of it. What was a woman doing writing hard-boiled crime fiction? And with a female protagonist?

Tough-edged tales

Now Ms. Grafton's books are instant best sellers. Thanks to her books, and those by such authors as Patricia Cornwell, Sara Paretsky and Marcia Muller, it's no longer unusual to see that a woman can write tough-edged mysteries with a female lead character. Kinsey, cynical and irreverent, became a cultural hero to some who liked seeing a strong, confident woman in charge. Others just liked her attitude.

Here is how she describes her old boss in " 'J' Is for Judgment": "Mac has never been one to plague himself with attempts at fitness, and his body, at this point, resembles a drawing from a child's perspective: long arms and legs, foreshortened trunk with a little head stuck on top."

Or her Clintonesque love of junk food: "I took myself out to breakfast, loading up on fats and carbohydrates, nature's antidepressants."

With " 'J' Is for Judgment," though, Ms. Grafton found herself in an unaccustomed position. Not only was writing the book difficult -- in it, Kinsey finally deals with the deaths of her parents, who were killed in an auto accident when she was 5 -- but the acerbic detective seemed to be losing her old charm.

"I realized that some of the joy was leaving the writing," Ms.

Grafton says. "Part of that was, by the 10th book, the pressure was mounting. My profile is getting enough that I feel that there are too many eyes on me. Also, I get a fair amount of fan mail, a small portion of which is devoted to correcting my foul tongue, as well as other forms of finger-wagging and scolding.

"While I can ward that off intellectually, some of that had seeped down and without meaning to, I had begun to self-censor. So when I had come to a particularly juicy piece of cussing, I would say to myself, 'Now, Susan, do you really need to use the f-word? Could you just say, "Phooey"?' So I was deleting the most wonderful things, and then I realized that Kinsey was pouting. She was not happy."

Unhappy Kinsey

Kinsey, you see, "is always right behind me when I write, egging me on." Ms. Grafton says this seriously; she continues matter-of-factly that, when faced with a dilemma, she sometimes asks herself, "Now, what would Kinsey do?"

In this case, the answer was clear.

"Once I understood what I was doing, I had to correct some things," Ms. Grafton goes on. "One of the things I did was to walk around my house for two weeks cussing desperately, just to get some sass back. I started feeling a lot better. And I also decided I had to be willing to fail again. In essence, I simply gave myself up to the process. I said, 'I simply don't care anymore. I don't carewhat the critics will say, I don't care what the readers will say. I'm going to do this one for me."

The Grafton fan

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