The ABCs of author Sue Grafton

Book: We uncover little-known facts about the woman behind private investigator Kinsey Millhone and the alphabetical series featuring the sleuth.

November 03, 1999|By Laura Lippmann

Nineteen years ago, Sue Grafton published her first "Alphabet" mystery, "A is for Alibi," introducing female private investigator Kinsey Mill-hone. Now up to No. 15 -- "0 is for Outlaw" (Henry Holt, $26) -- Grafton is visiting Baltimore to discuss the latest in her string of best-selling novels. We decided to tell her story -- and Kinsey's -- from A to Z. (You'll have to follow the clues to find out where and when she will be in Baltimore.)

A is for the alphabet. In hindsight, Grafton seems brilliant for picking a thematic device that makes her books not only memorable, but easy to arrange in chronological order. But in 1982, there was no guarantee that "A is for Alibi" would lead to "B is for Burglar."

B is for Bibelot on Reisterstown Road, where Grafton will speak at 7 tonight. Catch her now, or you may have to wait awhile. Her book tours rotate regions.

C is for cinema. Don't expect to see Kinsey Milhone on the big -- or small -- screen. Grafton, who once wrote for television, refuses to sell her books to Hollywood.

D is for dress. Kinsey owns only one all-purpose, indestructible, wrinkle-proof black dress. Grafton is slightly more interested in what she wears. "Then again, I'd have to be," she told the New York Times.

E is for exercise. Kinsey runs and lifts weights. Grafton works out, too, and has often spoken about the importance of exercise for writers, if only because they spend so much time sitting in chairs, with predictable results.

F is for friends and family. Kinsey has a small circle of people she allows to get close to her, even by solitary P.I. standards. She thought she had no living relatives, but that changed in "J is for Judgment."

G is for Grafton, C.W. Grafton's father was a Kentucky lawyer and mystery writer whose work included "The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope," "The Rope Began to Hang the Butcher," and "Beyond a Reasonable Doubt."

H is for husbands past and present. Grafton has said she was inspired to write her first book by an ex-husband. Her third husband, Steven Humphrey, is acknowledged in every book -- including the first.

I is for Indonesian, one of the 26 languages in which Grafton's work has been published.

J is for jobs. Grafton's pre-writing resume includes several jobs in the medical field -- admissions clerk, cashier and medical secretary. Kinsey is an ex-cop.

K is for Kinsey, her protagonist. Grafton once remarked she knew it was progress, of a sort, when people stopped naming their pets "Kinsey" and started naming their children "Kinsey." This includes one of her own granddaughters, to whom "O" is dedicated.

L is for "The Lolly-Madonna War" (1969), one of two novels Grafton wrote before she began writing mysteries. Her first book, "Keziah Dane," was published in 1967, when Grafton was 27. Both are out of print.

M is for Marcia Muller and Maxine O'Callaghan, two writers widely credited for inventing the modern-day female P.I. Muller wrote the first novel, "Edwin of the Iron Shoes," in 1977, but O'Callaghan's Delilah West had already appeared in a short story.

N is for "N is for Noose," the most recent paperback edition of Grafton's work. (We're halfway through the alphabet, we're getting a little tired.) It takes place in Nota Lake and features some folks named Newquist.

O is for oops. Grafton cheerfully cops to the occasional error, from citrus trees that shed their leaves to disappearing doorbells.

P is for peanut butter and pickle sandwiches, a Kinsey favorite.

Q is for quota. Grafton, who writes almost every day, is at her desk at 9 a.m., usually revising the previous day's work. She sets herself a quota of two pages a day.

R is for respectfully submitted, the sign-off to Kinsey's novel-length reports.

S is for Santa Teresa, the fictional town patterned after Santa Barbara. Or is it Montecito, Grafton's current home?

T is for technology. By aging Kinsey slowly -- it's only 1986 when "O is for Outlaw" opens -- Grafton has deliberately avoided the high-tech investigative techniques available to more modern detectives. No cell phone and no Internet for Kinsey. "My heroes are still Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and Ross Macdonald," Grafton says in an interview on her Web site. "The stories they tell have nothing to do with technology and everything to do with human nature."

U is for unhitched. Divorced twice, Kinsey lives alone and likes it. "O" introduces us to her first husband, Mickey Magruder.

V is for V.I. Warshawski, the female private eye who debuted the same year as Kinsey, in Sara Paretsky's "Indemnity Only." She's back this summer in "Hard Time" and keeping Kinsey company on various best-seller lists.

X is for "Xenophobic Racism on the Rise with Murderous Consequences for the Ethnic Balance of Coastal California," a facetious title suggested for this challenging letter in a 1994 New Yorker piece by Anthony Lane.

W is for Western Maryland College in Westminster, which awarded Grafton an honorary degree in 1998.

Y is for yippee! If we feel this great working on a mere list, imagine how Grafton is going to feel when she's up to the penultimate letter of the alphabet.

Z is for zeros. Grafton sees a lot of them, ranging from her first printings (estimated at 500,000) to her advances and royalty checks. She has said she managed to invent someone who supports her, not a bad trick. Her books routinely climb the New York Times best-seller list, although this season Kinsey faces a foe unlike she has ever known -- Harry Potter.

Respectfully submitted, Laura Lippman

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