Once, long ago, I thought I’d try out the Mystery Book Club. I forget why– I imagine I was seduced by one of their then-ubiquitous magazine mail-in ads; I think the signing bonus was a set of the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce radio dramas on cassette, something like that. Something tempting… FOR JUST 19 CENTS!! and shipping.
The point is, the way the program worked, once you were hooked they sent you a flyer every month telling you what that month’s selection was, and if you didn’t want it, you had to mail back the form saying no, don’t send it. And you damned well had to do it promptly, because if you didn’t get it back to them in seven days, they’d automatically send the books and you were on the hook for the full price. (As I recall, anyway. This was a long time ago. But I know it was not much of a window.)
Well, thought I, I see what THIS is all about. I will just be diligent about mailing in the refusal card and they’ll never trap ME.
That smug resolve lasted for, oh, maybe four months. But sure enough, there was the one time I forgot to buy stamps or something, and I didn’t get the damn refusal mailed on time. So then one day on my doorstep there they were, two books I didn’t want and had to pay for.
I was annoyed, but there was no goddamn way I was going to pay for a book and not READ it. So I sighed and settled in with my new forced additions to the library. One was forgettable… but the other one blew me out of my chair.
It was C is For Corpse.
That was my introduction to Sue Grafton, and to Kinsey Millhone, her remarkable private eye. I immediately sought out the previous two in the series, A is for Alibi and B is for Burglar, and I kept up with the alphabet thereafter. By the time she got to H is For Homicide I had started getting them in hardcover because I just couldn’t stand to wait. From that point on, mine are all hardcover firsts bought new within the first few weeks of the release. (The preceding seven, A through G, I have traded up to various hardcover editions in the years since, but finding real firsts of the early ones is difficult. It’s on the bookscouting short-list of things I sort of pick at.)
Much is going to be made of the fact that, along with Sara Paretsky and her V.I. Warshawski, Sue Grafton pioneered the idea of a tough female private investigator. (Both Kinsey and V.I. made their debut in 1982.) But Grafton herself shrugged it off in interviews– she wasn’t about creating some sort of feminist icon. “I’m so dense, it never occurred to me that women writers were not writing about women detectives. I did it not from a defiant, feminist point of view. I was working hard to learn the form of a police and private eye procedure, that when it came down to the main character, I said, ‘I’m going to play the part myself.’ What I really know is how to be female. That’s why Kinsey is a woman and not a guy. I would never have the nerve to write from a man’s point of view. I’m clueless about men.”
And she’s right– the Kinsey novels aren’t really about gender politics. In fact, it’s hard to say just what they are about. One of the remarkable things about Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone books is that you just never know what kind of book it’s going to be…. but on the other hand, you can always count on Kinsey to be her usual irascible independent self throughout. The reason this is so remarkable is because it’s pretty much unheard of for a mystery novelist to do this successfully.
Seriously. If you think comic-book fans are conservative and picky, you should see mystery fans. (There are still Sherlockians in a spit-spraying rage over Benedict Cumberbatch defiling the work of Jeremy Brett…the same Jeremy Brett who, another contingent will tell you, was clearly just mimicking the REAL Holmes, Basil Rathbone… and so on.)
Frankly, once a mystery novelist has a successful series, the rule of thumb is to play it safe and just do the hits. You know exactly what you’re going to get in a Mike Hammer story or a Nero Wolfe story or even– as intricate and beautifully-written as they are– a Lew Archer story. Whether it’s Hammer pistol-whipping a suspect, or Wolfe eating a huge gourmet meal, or Archer uncovering a crime with roots deep in a family’s past, you KNOW certain things are going to happen. It’s comfort food. That’s the great challenge in doing it well– because you want to honor reader expectations and surprise them at the same time.
But there’s really no such thing as a typical Kinsey Millhone mystery. Some are action stories, some are whodunits, some are tricky heist tales, and some are the darkest horror/suspense books I’ve ever run across. (T Is For Trespass, Kinsey’s battle of wits with the sociopathic ‘caregiver’ Solana Rojas, creeped me right the hell out, and I’m a pretty jaded mystery fan.) There aren’t really any set pieces or anything like that that readers will feel disappointed if they don’t get. The only constant is Kinsey herself: twice divorced and fiercely independent, difficult to know, picky eater with a secret yen for junk food, stays in shape as best she can by jogging in the mornings. And sarcastic. Black-belt level sarcastic.
Here are a few of my favorite Kinsey observations:
You can’t save others from themselves because those who make a perpetual muddle of their lives don’t appreciate your interfering with the drama they’ve created. They want your poor-sweet-baby sympathy, but they don’t want to change.
I hate nature. I really do. Nature is composed entirely of sticks, dirt, fall-down places, biting and stinging things, and savageries too numerous to list. And I’m not the only one who feels this way. Man has been building cities since the year oughty-ought, just to get away from this stuff.
If your mind isn’t open, keep your mouth shut too.
All of us are subjected to somebody else’s power at some point. So once in a while you kiss ass. So what? Either you make your peace with that early, or you end up living your life as a crank and a misfit.
There are twenty-six Kinsey Millhone books, the alphabet up through to Y Is For Yesterday, and also the collection of short stories, Kinsey and Me. All of them have been best-sellers; strictly on the merits, I think. There never is a lot of publicity or touring involved with a new Grafton– just a big end-cap or a table display in Barnes and Noble and that’s about it. Sue Grafton made her bones as a writer in Hollywood doing screenplays and apparently got her fill of it, which is why there never has been even a hint of a Kinsey Millhone TV show or movie. There is really only one ancillary product out there, and that’s G Is For Grafton, an entertaining fictional biography/literary study of the novels by Natalie Kaufman and Carol Kay. That, and the original novels, is all there is– and all there ever will be. Here is the message Sue Grafton’s daughter put on her Facebook page this morning….
Hello Dear Readers. This is Sue’s daughter, Jamie. I am sorry to tell you all that Sue passed away last night after a two year battle with cancer. She was surrounded by family, including her devoted and adoring husband Steve. Although we knew this was coming, it was unexpected and fast. She had been fine up until just a few days ago, and then things moved quickly. Sue always said that she would continue writing as long as she had the juice. Many of you also know that she was adamant that her books would never be turned into movies or TV shows, 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.
If you have yet to make the acquaintance of Kinsey Millhone, here is a complete list of the books with summaries and sample chapters. They’re all good, and though there is a chronology to the books and things change, you really can start anywhere. I like them all but I do think that C Is For Corpse is when things kick into high gear. Other favorites are I Is For Innocent, M Is For Malice, and I already mentioned the shudderingly nasty T Is For Trespass. But chances are that if you like one, you’ll end up working your way through them all.
Even if we don’t get Z Is For Zero, that’s an enviable legacy for a novelist.
Our condolences and best wishes to Jamie and the Grafton family.