A Is For Appreciation: How Sue Grafton Helped Transform The Mystery Genre

Jan 2, 2018
Originally published on January 3, 2018 9:34 am

The audio link above includes an excerpt of Terry Gross' 1989 conversation with Sue Grafton.

I think the last time I reviewed one of Sue Grafton's novels was in 2009. I wrote that U is for Undertow was so good, "it makes me wish there were more than 26 letters at her disposal." Now, of course, that line falls flat.

As Grafton's fans know, the writer died of cancer on Dec. 28. Her last novel was Y is for Yesterday, which came out last summer. Turns out, there were only 25 letters at her disposal.

In interviews, Grafton always described hitting upon the strategy of alphabet titles for her novels as a whim. She said she got the idea after reading Edward Gorey's alphabet picture book, The Gashlycrumb Tinies, in which children die in grisly ways ("B is for Basil assaulted by bears," "G is for George smothered under a rug" and so on).

But what started out as a lark became — if I may say this of a "mere" mystery series — something defiant, noble even. Because a series that projects itself to the end of the alphabet is a race against limitations: the limitations of time and the imagination.

Time ran out on Grafton, but her creative stamina barely flagged. Sure, not every one of her novels was a standout (how could that be when there were so many of them?), but lots of the recent ones, like the aforementioned Y, were terrific and, as the series went on, her plots grew more intricate, increasingly haunted by the past and its crimes.

Throughout the series, Grafton's detective heroine, Kinsey Millhone, maintained her cheeky humor and cherished autonomy. Kinsey lived alone in what we would now call a "tiny house" and relied on that one black dress to see her through funerals and parties. She drank rotgut wine and refused to be cowed by patriarchal authority and the parasitic rich.

In short, Kinsey was a fictional alter ego for every shy woman who hesitated to talk back. Grafton said she counted herself among those shy women.

I reread Kinsey's debut, A is for Alibi, every few years for the detective fiction course I teach. It came out in 1982, a signature moment in hardboiled history. (Sara Paretsky introduced her gal gumshoe, V.I. Warshawski, that very same year.)

Things were pretty bleak before then for women in hardboiled mysteries — the two available roles were either femme fatale or corpse. But Grafton, Paretsky and other sleuthing sisters like Liza Cody, Eleanor Taylor Bland and pioneer Marcia Muller picked the locks on the doors of what had been mostly a men's club. They tossed out the genre's sexist, racist and nativist clichés along with its moldy cast of usual suspects — chief among them those emasculating femmes fatales.

Once those female private eyes and police detectives went to work investigating what Raymond Chandler famously called "a world gone wrong," the villains began to look radically different: mostly male and white. And in these feminist mysteries, evil wasn't imported into America from some exotic locale like it was, say, in The Maltese Falcon; rather, it sat squarely on Main Street — in banks, churches and corporations.

Grafton and that post-'60s generation of mystery writers revolutionized what had become fossilized formula fiction. They helped make the detective novel matter again.

Because of those quirky alphabet titles and Kinsey's humor, Grafton's novels were sometimes regarded as "lighter" than those of her colleagues. They shouldn't be. Those trademark wisecracks of Kinsey's were often wrapped around barbed social commentary. Here's Kinsey in A is for Alibi describing the tedium of her workday, most of it spent:

... checking and cross-checking, filling in blanks, detail work. ... The basic characteristics of any good investigator are a plodding nature and infinite patience. Society has inadvertently been grooming women to this end for years.

The conclusion of A is for Alibi is deadly serious. It's an ingenious feminist rewriting of one of the most hateful mystery endings of all time: Mickey Spillane's misogynist masterpiece, I, The Jury. I won't spoil the fun; just think Sigmund Freud and womb imagery triumphantly vanquishing the phallic symbol.

I'd like to think there's something fitting in the way Grafton's alphabet series is almost, but not quite, complete. The greatest hardboiled mysteries never conclude with neat solutions, but rather with ambiguity. Grafton planned to call her last novel Z is for Zero; but, like so many of Kinsey's cases, it remains open.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. 2017 ended on a sad note for mystery fans with the death of alphabet mystery series author Sue Grafton. She was 77. We're going to hear an excerpt of my 1989 interview with Grafton. But first, our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, has an appreciation.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: I think the last time I reviewed one of Sue Grafton's novels was in 2009. I wrote that "U Is For Undertow" was so good it made me wish that there were more than 26 letters at her disposal. Now, of course, that line falls flat. As Grafton's fans know, she died of cancer on December 28. Her last novel was "Y Is For Yesterday," which came out last summer. Turns out there were only 25 letters at her disposal.

In interviews, Grafton always described hitting upon the strategy of alphabet titles for her novels as a whim. She said she got the idea after reading Edward Gorey's alphabet picture book called "The Gashlycrumb Tinies," in which children die in grisly ways - B is for Basil assaulted by bears, G is for George smothered under a rug, and so on. But what started out as a lark became - if I may say this of a mere mystery series - something defiant, noble, even, because a series that projects itself to the end of the alphabet is a race against limitations, the limitations of time and the imagination.

Time ran out on Grafton, but her creative stamina barely flagged. Sure, not every one of her novels was a standout. How could that be when there were so many of them? But lots of the recent ones, like the aforementioned "Y," were terrific, and as the series went on, her plots grew more intricate, increasingly haunted by the past and its crimes. Throughout the series, Grafton's detective heroine, Kinsey Millhone, maintained her cheeky humor and cherished autonomy. Kinsey lived alone in what we would now call a tiny house and relied on that one black dress to see her through funerals and parties. She drank rotgut wine and refused to be cowed by patriarchal authority and the parasitic rich. In short, Kinsey was a fictional alter ego for every shy woman who hesitated to talk back. Grafton said she counted herself among those shy women.

I reread Kinsey's debut, "A Is For Alibi," every few years for the detective fiction course I teach. It came out in 1982, a signature moment in hard-boiled history. Sara Paretsky introduced her gal gumshoe, V.I. Warshawski, that very same year. Things were pretty bleak before then for women in hard-boiled mysteries. The two available roles were either femme fatale or corpse. But Grafton, Paretsky and other sleuthing sisters like Liza Cody, Eleanor Taylor Bland and pioneer Marcia Muller picked the locks on the doors of what had been mostly a men's club.

They tossed out the genre's racist, sexist and nativist cliches and its moldy cast of usual suspects, chief among them, those emasculating femme fatales. Once those female private eyes and police detectives went to work investigating what Raymond Chandler famously called a world gone wrong, the villains began to look radically different, mostly male and white. And in these feminist mysteries, evil wasn't imported into America from some exotic locale like it was, say, in "The Maltese Falcon," but rather, it sat squarely on Main Street in banks, churches and corporations.

Grafton and that post-'60s generation of mystery writers revolutionized what had become fossilized formula fiction. They helped make the detective novel matter again. Because of those quirky alphabet titles and Kinsey's humor, Grafton's novels were sometimes regarded as lighter than those of her colleagues. They shouldn't be. Those trademark wisecracks of Kinsey's were often wrapped around barbed social commentary. Here's Kinsey in "A Is For Alibi" describing the tedium of her workday, most of it spent (reading) checking and cross-checking, filling in blanks, detail work. The basic characteristics of any good investigator are a plodding nature and infinite patience. Society has inadvertently been grooming women to this end for years.

The conclusion of "A Is For Alibi" is deadly serious. It's an ingenious feminist rewriting of one of the most hateful mystery endings of all time, Mickey Spillane's misogynist masterpiece "I, The Jury." I won't spoil the fun. Just think Freud and womb imagery triumphantly vanquishing the phallic symbol. I'd like to think there's something fitting in the way Grafton's alphabet series is almost, but not quite, complete. The great hard-boiled mysteries never conclude with neat solutions, but rather with ambiguity. Grafton planned to call her last novel "Z Is For Zero," but like so many of Kinsey's cases, it remains open.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. I spoke with Sue Grafton in 1989, seven years after she started her alphabet mystery series with private eye Kinsey Millhone. When we spoke, she'd already written "A Is For Alibi," "B Is For Burglar," "C Is For Corpse," "D Is For Deadbeat" and "E Is For Evidence." Her book "F Is For Fugitive" had just been published. I asked her about the first Kinsey Millhone novel, which ended with her facing a moral crisis. She'd killed someone in self-defense.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SUE GRAFTON: What I am interested in doing, aside from the fact of the mystery itself, is talking about its effect on Kinsey Millhone. One of the things that always seemed true of me of mysteries in general is the prime character, the protagonist, seems not to be affected by the murder and mayhem. And I wanted to use Kinsey Millhone not only as a way of observing society, but showing her reaction and the changes it brings about in her own personality.

GROSS: When you started writing detective fiction, were you self-conscious about being a woman and self-conscious about figuring out how to make this a more feminist crime series than a macho one?

GRAFTON: No, I was self-conscious, but primarily because I was ill at ease with some of the technicalities of writing detective fiction. When I started "A Is For Alibi," I didn't even know what a private investigator did. So in the course of writing that book, I did a lot of reading on forensics and California criminal law, ballistics, auto and - theft, and burglary and that sort of thing. And I think my self-consciousness was the sense of not being qualified to do the writing. And one of the reasons I made Kinsey Millhone female is because I felt like that was an area in which I had a little expertise.

GROSS: What other kinds of research did you have to do before you felt confident in writing a convincing crime story?

GRAFTON: I learned to shoot a handgun. I took women's self-defense. All of the books take me down dark alleys. For instance, when I did "C Is For Corpse," I went to visit two morgues so that I would know what that looked like. I did a ride-along with the police in Santa Barbara one night, and that was a bit of an eye opener because I tend to go to bed very early, and to see what goes on in that town after 10 o'clock was sort of astonishing.

GROSS: Now, it's interesting. Your detective, Kinsey Millhone, has no family. Her parents were killed in a car accident when she was 5 years old. And I'd like to read something that she says in "F Is For Fugitive," your new book.

GRAFTON: All right.

GROSS: Now, in this scene, she's having dinner with a family. They're all pretty crazy in this family. And she says, (reading) as a child, I didn't experience much in the way of family, and I usually find myself somewhat taken aback to see one at close range. "The Donna Reed Show" this was not. People talk about dysfunctional families. I've never seen any other kind.

You know, one of the things I always find interesting in most detective novels is that the character has kind of given up on the idea of family. They don't have any expectations for it.

GRAFTON: Correct. Well, I know Kinsey will never marry again. She will never have children. But part of that is because I think the tradition of the hard-boiled private eye is that of a loner, the sort of knight-errant. And in part, I made those choices because in the writing of detective fiction, I didn't want to stop and deal with Aunt Maudie (ph) and Uncle Herman (ph) and everybody gathered around, so she has a sort of surrogate family in Henry Pitts and Rosie, the woman who owns the tavern in her neighborhood. But I didn't want to deal with family gatherings at Christmastime and that sort of thing. So it is an option I'm - the choice I made, and I feel it's the correct one, in terms of the kind of book I'm writing.

GROSS: When you started the series, how did you come up with the "A Is For Alibi," and did you think at that time that you would be committing yourself to a B, C, D, E, F and so on?

GRAFTON: It had been in the back of my mind to try a series based on something. So "A Is For Alibi" came out of a personal situation of my own in which I was going through a very bitter divorce. And at the time, I was not very effectual as a fighter. I have since learned quite a lot about how to fight legal battles, but I used to lie awake at night and think of ways to kill the man. However, because I am such a law-abiding little bun, I knew I'd get caught at it. For one thing, I think the cops are very smart. I think people are foolish who imagine they can outwit the police. And I am the sort of person who does not even turn a library book in late. Also, if I get a parking ticket, I know they're discussing me down at the police station.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GRAFTON: And I don't - that makes me uncomfortable. So I decided that the next best thing would be to take the murder, put it in a book and get paid for it. And in essence, I have launched an entire new career for myself out of mere homicidal rage.

GROSS: Each of your books has an epilogue in which Kinsey Millhone files her report.

GRAFTON: Yes.

GROSS: And in - the report is usually something of a summing up, but then she also always tells how much money she made and how much of an advance she was given and how much money she might have to give back, when that's the case. But yeah, she makes, like, a thousand, 2,000, maybe $3,000. It's so little money when you think of all she's put on the line to solve this case.

GRAFTON: She keeps her monthly nut quite modest. And what I need to talk about in that is that she is a professional. She does work for money. Many of the male detectives simply work for the spirit of it, which I don't think is very realistic in this day and age. I see Kinsey as capable and competent, and I think she should be paid for what she does. On the other hand, I don't want her to have to take money if she doesn't feel right about a case, so I like to keep her liberated in that respect.

GROSS: Have you found that Kinsey Millhone's courage is contagious?

GRAFTON: Yes. Often, I find that I look at the world through her eyes. And I think to myself, Kinsey Millhone would not be intimidated, and therefore, whether it scares me or not, I had better straighten up my act.

GROSS: Sue Grafton, thanks so much for talking with us.

GRAFTON: Thank you.

GROSS: Sue Grafton, recorded in 1989. She died last Thursday. She was 77.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, as President Trump pulls out of treaties and cuts back on U.N. spending under the banners of America First and make America great again, we'll talk about how China is trying to make China great again and using President Trump to its advantage. My guest will be Evan Osnos, who writes about this in the current New Yorker, where he's a staff writer. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.