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Modern Greats: Sue Grafton

Brook and Sarah start a new series exploring the life and writing of modern masters of the mystery genre. This week, they discuss Sue Grafton, author of 25 novels in the Alphabet series featuring PI Kinsey Milhone.

Titles mentioned

Keziah Dane (1967) Sue Grafton

The Lolly-Madonna War (1973) Sue Grafton

A is for Alibi (1982) Sue Grafton

E is for Evidence (1988) Sue Grafton

U is for Undertow (2009) Sue Grafton

Y is for Yesterday (2017) Sue Grafton

Writing Mysteries (2002) Sue Grafton (ed.)

Kinsey and Me: Stories (2013) Sue Grafton

The Gashleycrumb Tinies (1963) Edward Gorey

Stephanie Plum series (1994-present) Janet Evanovich

Grafton’s writing journals: https://www.suegrafton.com/journal-notes.php


“Sue Grafton’s ‘Z Is for Zero’ Will Remain an Unwritten Mystery” Bookbub (September 10, 2020) Kristina Wright

“Sue Grafton’s Alphabet Novels to Be Adapted for Television” Hollywood Reporter (October 7, 2021) The Associated Press

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This transcript is generated by a computer and there may be some mis-spellings and strange punctuation. We try to catch these before posting, but some things slip through.

SarahWelcome to Clued in Mystery. I’m Sarah.
BrookAnd I’m Brook. And we both love mystery
SarahHi Brook.
BrookHi Sarah. How are you?
SarahI’m doing really well. How about you?
BrookI’m great and I’m super excited to talk about one of my favorite authors today.
SarahBefore we begin our conversation about Sue Grafton, Brook, I just wanted to mention something really exciting that we’re going to be doing with the Cartel, which is our paid subscription. And that is a read-along that we are planning to do with a new James Patterson book called Holmes Margaret and Poe. Depending on where you’re living, it might be Holmes Marple and Poe. So that’s something that we will probably talk about in one of the episodes. We are planning to read it in sections and discuss it over a few episodes that we will be releasing to the Cartel.
BrookThat’s right, it’s going to be great. Sarah. Listeners of the show know that we do periodic series on like Golden Age authors. We have our regular series of “What Would You Do” and this season we’re introducing a brand-new series on modern greats. And our first author for that series is going to be Sue Grafton
BrookBefore I do a summary on Sue Grafton, I would like to just mention that there is a very brief mention of suicide in her bio, so just be aware of that. And ah even though Sue Grafton is one of my all-time favorite mystery authors, I actually knew very little about her personal life or background before we researched for this, which is strange for me. But I have had a lovely time researching and learning about her I watched several interviews with her on YouTube, which is so different, Sarah. Usually, we’re talking about people who lived years ago and ah we haven’t had that option. But I found her to be charming, witty, and very independent and readers of her series might recognize those same traits in her famous sleuth Kinsey Millhone. Grafton admits that she and Kinsey are a lot alike and in one interview she said, “We are one soul in two bodies, and she got the good one”. That’s what I mean she just seems like she was a very funny, charming, and witty woman.
BrookSue Taylor Grafton was born in 1940 in Louisville Kentucky to Vivian Harnsberger and C.W. Grafton, a municipal bond attorney and part-time detective novelist. Both of her parents had been presbyterian missionaries but had ceased practicing at some point. Grafton’s father enlisted in the army during World War II when she was three years old, and he returned home when she was five. After his return, her parents’ marriage soured and both of them became alcoholics. In interviews, Grafton explained that she and her older sister were left to their own devices much of the time as young children. She felt that she raised herself after the age of five. Years later she was able to see how such freedom to play and explore with other neighborhood children was the perfect setup for a novelist. Another key component to her becoming a writer was the way reading was encouraged in her household. She and her sister were allowed to read anything they wanted from their parents’ vast collection of books, including lots of genre fiction paperbacks. Her father’s alcoholism remained somewhat hidden behind his successful career, but Grafton’s mother grew extremely ill with her addiction. She eventually took her own life on Grafton’s twentieth birthday after returning home from a surgery to treat oesophageal cancer. Grafton graduated from the University of Louisville in 1961 with a BA degree in English literature. After finishing college she began her career as a medical secretary, which was the work she did in various hospitals for many years.
BrookEven though she wouldn’t earn a living from her books for years, Grafton’s writing career began when she was 18. She was inspired by her father’s aspirations to be a crime novelist. He penned three detective novels, and this encouraged her to write herself. Her first novel took four years to finish. She went on to write six more in her spare time while raising children as a single mom and working a full-time career in hospital administration. None of these were crime fiction but two of these seven novels were published, and they were Keziah Dane (1967) and The Lolly-Madonna War (1969). Grafton allegedly destroyed the five unpublished manuscripts later in her life. Without any real success with the novels, Grafton turned her attention to screenwriting. She ended up in Hollywood for 15 years, writing screenplays for TV movies and TV series. She perfected the craft of dialogue and concise storytelling, writing shows such as Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Rhoda, a spinoff of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, among others. In collaboration with her third husband, Stephen Humphrey, she also adapted the Agatha Christie novels A Caribbean Mystery (1983) and Sparkling Cyanide (1983) for television. Grafton was unhappy in Hollywood though. While the glitz and glamour was fun for a time, the team style of writing that the industry requires weighed on her.
BrookShe wanted to get back to solo writing, and she also wanted to end the terrible custody battle she had been fighting for six years with her second husband. Grafton says she would lie in bed at night thinking up ways to kill him. Of course, it was all just a fantasy to a law-abiding and rule-following person like Grafton, but she thought, “Why not write that story and get paid for it?” A is for Alibi (1982) was the outcome. She got the idea for a series based on the alphabet after reading the Edward Gory’s poem “The Gashleycrumb Tinies”. “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs. B is for Basil assaulted by bears.” and so on. She knew this would make a great series hook and started making a list of crime words associated with each letter of the alphabet. Amazingly, most of that original list remained the titles of what would become the Alphabet Series. Readers fell in love with PI Kinsey Millhone at once. She was different, not only a woman but quite young too, just thirty-two years old in A is for Alibi. She was also a kick butt loner with a dry sense of humor and a traumatic childhood. Who could resist? Sadly, Grafton’s father died in 1982 just months before the publication of A is for Alibi. He never read any of the crime novels he inspired in his daughter.
BrookGrafton went on to write 25 of the 26 letters of the alphabet. Over the course of 35 years, the series garnered four Anthony Awards and six Shamus Awards. Grafton herself was the recipient of the Crime Writers’ Association Diamond Dagger, the Mystery Writers of America’s Grandmaster Award, Bouchercon’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Ross Macdonald Literary Award. In 2017, Grafton passed away at the age of 77 after a two-year battle with cancer. This was just a few months after the release of Y is for Yesterday (2017). Upon her death, her UK publisher wrote. “It is so very sad to realize that her masterpiece Z is for Zero will be denied us. That Kinsey’s final sign off will remain unknown. But much as it is a life cruelly interrupted, it is one to celebrate and cherish.”
BrookGrafton had known for 30 years that Z would be for zero, but she didn’t know the end of Kinsey’s story. In 2017, while promoting Y is for Yesterday, she told the Seattle Times, “I don’t plan these books in advance. I don’t outline. My job is to stay out of Kinsey’s way and let her do exactly what she feels like doing, within reason.” Grafton was adamantly against adapting her series into a screenplay. In a 1997 interview with January magazine she said, “I will never sell Kinsey to Hollywood and I have made my children promise not to sell her. We’ve taken a blood oath and if they do so I will come back from the grave, which they know I can do.” Grafton’s daughter reaffirmed her mother’s wishes when she died. But in 2021, A&E acquired the rights to A is for Alibi and E is for Evidence (1988). To explain the decision, Grafton’s husband and executive producer of the potential series, Steve Humphrey, says he and the family agreed that the times and the medium have changed. Everything I’ve learned about her tells me that Sue Grafton is a woman of her word. So, I’m hoping when she fulfills her promise and comes back from the dead to straighten them out, she writes Z is for Zero for us while she’s here too.
SarahWell thank you, Brook. That was such a great summary of Sue Grafton’s life. And yeah, what a pity that we don’t have that final book in the series.
BrookI know. When I found out she passed away I know exactly where I was standing. I was at my sister’s house and my mom came over and she told me the news and I cried. I mean I just really felt like I lost a friend, which makes it surprising that I didn’t know more about her life. Do you ever find that though of like somebody that you really look up to one of those people you put on a pedestal. Maybe you don’t want to know ah too much. And maybe that was what was holding me back researching. But luckily, I didn’t find anything you know any black sheep kind of things.
SarahOh, that’s good I’m glad she remains a hero for you. And as you know, I have read very little Sue Grafton. I read two books of hers last summer and loved them. And haven’t read anything since because it’s almost like I want to hold onto them if that makes sense, knowing that there’s only 23 more that that I’ll be able to read. Yeah, I’ve been a little hesitant to read the next book in the series.
BrookThat makes perfect sense. I know exactly what you mean. When you when you find a series that you really like you definitely want to parcel them out. They’re they’re great books. The character of Kinsey Millhone is such I mean she was very very different, especially in the early 80s when Sue Grafton began writing these because we’re coming off of a very male-centric time period where the detectives, especially somebody who’s a PI, is going to be a guy and he’s going to be kind of a womanizer. So, it was just really refreshing I think to readers, and they just ate her up.
SarahOh, I can imagine. I’m reading them 40 years after those early books were published and um, they definitely feel like they’re from the early 1980s. But I can imagine how, just thinking of all the kind of societal things that were happening at the time, how readers would have responded to her.
BrookYeah, and I I think that that is some of their charm still is because you know Kinsey doesn’t have a cell phone. There are some computer records that she can access but it’s like she um has done investigative work for an insurance company so she can kind of go there and like use their computers sometimes right she doesn’t have a personal computer. She doesn’t have a cell phone in her pocket. So, it’s very much like pounding the pavement detective work. And I know um at one point because like ah, many of these stories take place about six months apart, so Kinsey Milhone doesn’t age at the same rate that we do she. She might only be about 10 years older by the time the series is done. And Grafton liked it that way because she could keep the technology simple and ensure that she was actually like solving the case with clues and connections with people and things like that.
SarahYeah, that’s that’s really interesting. So did she write anything else? Did she write under a pen name or anything like that?
BrookI don’t believe. Once she started the series that was her primary project. She did say in one of the interviews I listened to that she was so naive that when she started, she said that she would do A through Z and then she’d start doing numbers. But she was like “I had no idea like you know the time commitment I was I was looking at.” But she did contribute to some different anthologies with some short stories. There’s Writing Mysteries is a book published by the Mystery Writers of America and she edited that and then she has a book called Kinsey and Me that has more biographical information and kind of talks about those similarities that um, she and Kinsey share and I think it’s it’s quite personal.
SarahSo how do you feel about the potential screen adaptation of A is for Alibi and E is for Evidence?
BrookYeah, on the one hand it it makes me rather excited because it’s the same thing that you and I have talked about many times where they might not be the very best representation of the story but it would definitely keep the series alive and kind of bring it to the forefront again to a new audience. But I think the hangup for me is that she was so adamantly against it and it makes me sad that her family would promise her something and then go back on their word.
BrookI have to think that maybe some of her resistance happens because of her experience in Hollywood like she probably has intimate knowledge of what that process would be like and that’s why she didn’t want to um why she didn’t want to put her work through it.
SarahYeah, and and maybe there was a feeling of kind of losing control over her work because you know I think authors are often not that involved in that adaptation process and maybe there would have been opportunity for her because of her experience in screenwriting. But maybe not, you know I don’t know.
BrookYeah I think that really depends heavily on the contract and I would imagine that is a big part of it. I think she’s she felt so close to Kinsey that I I can imagine that she wouldn’t want anyone else to to kind of like put their hands on her so to speak.
SarahIs there any one that she really inspired like you know we can kind of draw a line from Agatha Christie through even though she wasn’t writing cozies to like kind of that type of book. Are there some other PIs like Kinsey Milhone that were inspired by Sue Grafton?
BrookThat’s a great question. Yeah that’s a great question and I don’t know that I’m right here but I’m I would probably guess like Janet Evanovitch was maybe like the next step. I would have to do some fact checking to make sure that they don’t overlap timewise. But I really feel like that was kind of the next phase, the Stephanie Plum. I do think that we see her in even our modern cozies because many times we’re dealing with a female sleuth, certainly not a PI, but I think that um, dogged independent and you know these very um, strong-willed women. I think we we see them even in some of the more lighthearted mysteries that um that we have nowadays that I don’t know that we would have if people like Kinsey Milhhone or Stephanie Plum hadn’t come first.
SarahDid you see anything about how she wrote you mentioned in the introduction that she said she didn’t outline.
BrookRight? I’m really fascinated by her writing process. But it’s really not very mysterious because ah she did just exactly what you would think a discovery writer would do. She sat down and she just kind of started and then she would you know wonder “Okay, what would Kinsey do next?” We’ll link to these in our show notes. Um I think there’s 4 or 5 different books. She would keep like a running journal as she wrote the book so you have the date and then she just kind of talks to herself. You know like “I could have this happen or I could have that happen but then that would mean that this would have to happen”. And I thought you know it’s just kind of the process you go to It’s just kind of that process you go through when you kind of start to flesh out the story but there is one section in U is for Undertow and I love this part. It’s not Grafton saying this, it’s one of her characters and he’s named Mr. Snow and he’s a teacher at a community college and one of the other characters is taking a class from him.
BrookAnd Mr Snow says to his student: “Writing’s hard. It’s a skill you attain by practicing. You don’t just dash off good work in your off hours. You can’t be half-hearted. It takes time you want to be a concert period. You want to be a concert pianis?. You don’t slog your way through five easy pieces and expect to be booked into Carnegie Hall. You have to sit down and write. As much as you can every day of your life. Does that make much sense?”
SarahAh, interesting I love the idea of her journals. I read somewhere that she kept a she started a new journal for each book that she wrote and that’s where she just was capturing. All of her ideas. And um I think maybe that’s something that I might try with the next book that I write just to you know I have notes that I keep on my phone or um, ah you know in ah in an online note taking app. But there is something about you know, writing something in a journal by hand that um maybe gets more of that as you say talking to yourself and and really working some of that out. So I think that that’s a really interesting approach.
BrookI do too and it also shows that I mean for sure these people um that that are such great mystery authors, they definitely have a talent and a skill. But at the end of the day they’re just a normal person, just like us who’s trying to put a story together and I feel like it was really inspiring to read some of those entries and think “okay, yeah, those are the quandaries that you get yourself. Those are the corners you paint yourself in when you’re trying to write a book.” And even Sue Grafton had it happen to her.
SarahAnd the other thing that I read about her was that despite her fame and success. She um, remained very open to speaking to fans and you know you said you found a lot of interviews with her. It sounded like she didn’t separate herself from her readers.
BrookYeah I think that that’s probably true. I mean when you hear her voice. She’s got that really cute little Louisville um twang to her. You know she has a cute accent and she talks very down to earth. You can see where clearly where Kinsey gets her sense of humor because she’ll say little things like that and um I think you’re right I think he’s she stayed very um, very much true to who she always had been even though she became very famous. Um, yeah.
SarahAnd so my final question for you is um about her final book. Do you know if she left any notes for that like is there any possibility that it might get written or is it forever going to be a 25-book series.
BrookI think it’s forever going to be the alphabet ends at y. Because the information that the family has provided is that she was actually quite ill by that time and that she was really trying. To come up with an idea and a storyline that she was would be happy with and that she wasn’t able to do that she wasn’t able to decide on a on a finale for Kinsey.
SarahWell, Brook, this has been so interesting to learn a little bit more about Sue Grafton and her series and I’m definitely going to read some more of hers. She’s always she’s been one of those authors that I’ve seen on the shelf and never thought to pick up and it was through conversations with you that that inspired me to do that.
BrookWell, thanks Sarah I’m really glad that you’ve enjoyed it and um I will probably make my way through the series another time very soon. It’s one of those comfort reads for me and I’ll pick her up whenever I need something that I just really truly love. So, this is going to be a fantastic series. Um, we’ll be doing more modern greats as the months go by. So, thank you listeners for joining us today on Clued in Mystery I’m Brook.
SarahAnd I’m Sarah and we both love mystery.