Trailblazing author of an alphabetical female detective series set in fictional Santa Barbara
Sue Grafton, who has died aged 77, was a trailblazing writer of American detective stories. Her 25 novels featuring the private eye Kinsey Millhone, which began with A is for Alibi in 1982 and extended through the alphabet to Y is for Yesterday (2016), established the hard-boiled female detective as a viable alternative to the males who had dominated the genre.
Millhone, an ex-cop and twice divorced, was a tough character, but in Grafton’s hands she also had a deep understanding of the effects on people of the crimes she investigated. This reflected Grafton’s major influence, Ross MacDonald, whose Lew Archer novels were marked by their relative lack of violence and their sharp perceptions of life in southern California. Grafton set her books in a Californian city called Santa Teresa, a fictionalised version of Santa Barbara, whose name she borrowed in homage to MacDonald.
Her influence on writers was immense, not only through Millhone but also on a personal level. The crime writer Meg Gardiner, a big fan, said: “With every page I wished: Kinsey Millhone, be my friend. Beyond that [she] showed me how a female series heroine could work … I thought: Yes. Give me more. And let me learn to write fiction that aspires to be as good.” The novelist Jeff Abbott had a similar reaction: “Kinsey was a different kind of character,” he said. “She was modern. She had problems like mine, like living between pay cheques and sometimes spending too much time alone; a rich inner life. A lot of the story was about her life, in addition to the case she was trying to solve.”
Much of Millhone came from Grafton’s own experience. She was born in Louisville, Kentucky, where her father, Chip Grafton, was a bond lawyer who also wrote detective novels under the name CW Grafton, and her mother, Vivian (nee Harnsburger), was a teacher. Both were alcoholics, and from an early age Sue was left to look after herself. After a year at the University of Louisville, she transferred to Western Kentucky State Teachers College (now Western Kentucky University), where she married James Flood and had two children. The relationship ended quickly. After her mother’s suicide in 1960 she returned to graduate from Louisville in 1961. She dropped out of graduate school after marrying again – to Al Schmidt – and followed her husband to Santa Barbara. There she worked in office jobs while writing in her spare time.
She had begun her first book at 18, after the pleasant shock of reading Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novel, I, the Jury. “After Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie, what a revelation!” she said. “It may have been the moment when the spirit of Kinsey Millhone first sparked to life.”
But her initial three books went unpublished, and it wasn’t until 1967 that her fourth, Keziah Dane, became the first to reach the public domain. That was followed by The Lolly-Madonna War (1969), a story of feuding families in the Appalachian hills, which was adapted into a film called Lolly-Madonna XXX (1973). Despite a strong cast with Rod Steiger, Robert Ryan, Jeff Bridges, Randy Quaid, Gary Busey and Season Hubley, the film died. Nonetheless, Grafton’s work on its screenplay led her to spend the next 15 years screenwriting – primarily in television movies, although after writing the teleplay for the 1981 movie Nurse, starring Michael Learned, she developed it into a series that ran for two seasons. Asked once about the prospect of her own novels being adapted for the small screen, she had quipped: “I would never let those clowns get their hands on my books,” though B is for Burglar and D is for Deadbeat were adapted as TV movies in Japan.
In the late 1960s her second marriage ended in a protracted divorce and custody battle so brutal that she would jot down notes of ways to kill her husband, which later found their way into her novels. She married Steven Humphrey, a philosophy professor, in 1978. They collaborated on teleplays, including two Agatha Christie adaptations – A Caribbean Mystery, starring Helen Hayes as Miss Marple, and Sparkling Cyanide, with Anthony Andrews as Tony Browne, both airing in 1983. Eventually the couple split their time between Santa Barbara and an estate in Louisville, with Humphrey teaching at universities in both cities.
A is for Alibi had been published in 1982. Grafton had written seven books before that, but had destroyed the manuscripts of the five that were not published. Alibi’s success meant she gave up writing for the screen.
She had conceived Millhone as a series character and had been fascinated by writers who used connected titles, such as John D MacDonald’s colours in the titles of his Travis McGee novels, or the days of the week in Harry Kemelman’s Rabbi series. But the inspiration for Millhone’s alphabet titles came from Edward Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies, in which 26 children suffer ghastly ends in alphabetical order. All her titles followed the A is for … pattern, apart from the 24th, called simply X.
As early as 1991 Grafton had announced that the final book in the series would be called Z is for Zero, but after Y is for Yesterday she became ill with cancer and was unable even to begin that last novel. Her family ruled out further adaptations of her books or any use of ghostwriters to continue the Millhone series.
She is survived by Steven, and by three children, Leslie, Jamie and Jay, from her previous marriages.
Sue Taylor Grafton, author, born 24 April 1940; died 28 December 2017.