It's funny how much you can get from just hearing a voice. When I talked to Sue Grafton I was immediately charmed by her warmth and humor. She was so enthusiastic to talk about her love of writing. When I interviewed her for the release of "X" in 2015, she immediately started by saying, “I love talking about writing. That is one of my favorite things. So I hope that is what we are going to be doing here.”
Since "A is for Alibi" was released in 1982, I have been a fan of Sue's tough and smart PI, Kinsey Milhone. Back in those days the idea of a woman detective was a neat little thing who drank tea from a bone China cup. Having taken the plunge, Grafton went full speed ahead in creating a real woman who can hold her own against any hard-boiled male detective. Over the years Milhone has tackled crime while at the same time juggling the kind of real life challenges that all women face: sex, betrayal and having to worry about their hair. (Of course, not all women will turn to nail scissors.)
Like her counterpart, Sara Peretsky, whose detective V.I. Warshawski is just as emotionally and financially independent as Milhone, Grafton blazed the way for female writers to tackle the subject of violence and corruption that was traditionally viewed as the purview of men.
Both Grafton and Peretsky were ground breakers. They paved the way for female writers to tackle crime fiction where the bullets fly and the wisecracks and sexual encounters make for a darn good read. Or as Kinsey would say, “A d%#n good read.” That was one of the hallmarks of the new approach to women detectives – they could have potty mouths, take apart a gun or slug a bad guy in the jaw.
In my interview with Grafton, we talked about many of the things that we had in common. Like me, she had worked in a hospital when she was young. After working in a hospital lab, I could relate to what Kinsey comments about a character, “She wore a pale-yellow sweater about the hue of certain urine samples I’ve seen where the prognosis isn’t keen.”
We also shared a similar opinion of Hollywood, where Grafton worked. Only someone who has worked there can understand what it is like to submit a script and to have it sent back with notes suggesting you change this and change that. Years of that can drive you crazy. Or send you heading for the hills. Or even for Florida.
Luckily, instead of going crazy Grafton thought up the plot for “A is for Alibi” and the rest is history. (Yes, the idea actually came from a plot to kill her ex-husband with whom she was having a bitter custody battle. Lucky for us she wrote the book instead.) Millions of books later, the one thing that Grafton was sure of about Hollywood is that she did not want to hand her books over to them. The idea of the mess that they would make was too much for her. She told me that she didn’t care what was done with them once she was gone – so I supposed one day we will see a deal for 25 – no, make that 26 – Kinsey Milhone films. The last and final one will no doubt come from one of those journals that she kept for each of her books.
It was a great run. Sue Grafton joked that it was cheeky of her to grab the alphabet for herself. We can all be grateful that she did – and it is wonderful that we can go back and start at the beginning. I just re-read her first book and it is just as fresh and fun as it was all those years ago. After all, who can resist a story about a philandering husband who gets his dues. It's so sweet. Almost as sweet as the smell of oleander heavy with dew.
A, B, C, D, E, F, Gee – we will all miss the Mystery Writer of America Grand Master – Sue Grafton.