Sue Grafton and the Alphabet Books

By Philip Hall

Sue Grafton is an American crime writer whose series of books all feature private detective Kinsey Millhone. Their titles are all lettered in sequence starting with A is for Alibi and now reaching nearly the end of the alphabet. Although there is slight sense of history moving on it moves much more slowly in the books. Kinsey is still the same thirtyish woman she always was and recent books are still set in the late eighties.

She lives in a tiny dwelling designed specifically for her by her landlord Henry. She and Henry are close. Henry is an old man in his eighties although Kinsey has been known to speculate that if he was much younger she would have married him. Henry is a strongly written character and his experience as a retired baker is a frequent source of comment.

Sue Grafton
Author Sue Grafton – image courtesy of Wikimedia

In fact Kinsey has been in two earlier failed marriages. The second ending abruptly when her husband left but later he is a character brought back to feature in a later book. Kinsey lives in the fictional southern California town of Santa Teresa, closely modelled upon real life Santa Barbara. Grafton makes use of the environment to create a strong sense of place. The books reflect Grafton’s exposure to American crime fiction with many features such as the location reflecting her fandom of earlier famed authors such as Ross Macdonald and John D MacDonald. Sue Grafton is the daughter of C W Grafton who was himself a thriller writer and she is steeped in the subject.

The character of Kinsey has suffered a traumatic childhood with her parents killed when she was five. She was raised by her strict Aunt Gin and this is reflected in her self reliant character. She pays little attention to her feminine attributes and generally deals with men at arms length. Henry is the man to whom she gives such affection as she can give. Henry has two older siblings one of whom marries Rosie, a rather comic character.

There are curious parallels between Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky who created a somewhat similar character in V I Warsawski also a female private detective. V I is based in Chicago and is a rather more gritty person. Her underdog bias reflects the authors views. V I also has a strong friendship with her landlord, again a much older man called Mr Contreras. In both cases the older man are strongly involved partly with the women as surrogate daughters but in small part as unrequited lovers.

For both Grafton and Paretsky the plots are ingenious, even thrilling. They are both in the American private eye tradition but with the twist that the private eye is a woman. While not overtly feminist there is a sub text of female empowerment. Although the plots require subtlety and determination from the protagonists neither is averse to occasional physical action.

Both authors major on their chosen characters, Grafton never stepping beyond and Paretsky only rarely.


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