CONNECTIONS | MAGAZINE
A is for abridging audiobooks, a job that bonded her with the detective novelist she never got the chance to meet.
james grover for the boston globe
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I was waiting until after the publication of Sue Grafton’s final alphabet mystery, Z Is for Zero, to write about what it was like to work for more than 30 years on her Kinsey Millhone mysteries for audiobooks. So I was caught up short by an e-mail from a friend that began, “Sue Grafton, Whose Detective Novels Spanned the Alpha bet …” I didn’t need to read further.
There would be no Z; the end would forever be 2017’s Y Is for Yesterday, a fitting title. As sorrowful as I felt about her death, I had an additional regret: I’d wanted to write about my Midwestern affiliation with Grafton (she was born in Kentucky, I in Ohio) and my bond with Kinsey, her savvy private investigator with a taste for justice.
I don’t know where a book abridger like me sits in the automobile of publishing — perhaps in the trunk. Still, it remains an intimate connection, and abridging (as I did for every Kinsey book except B Is for Burglar) is a ruthless process that has to be done with respect and some measure of love. It requires reading a book multiple times to condense it in a way that retains its integrity without sounding choppy.
It was a dream job for a book lover like me, who’d migrated east with no real skills except reading and writing. This had led to many dismal corners: cosmetology textbooks, field artillery manuals, and finally a position with World’s Greatest Romances magazine, which bundled five fluffy novels that I boiled down to their syrupy essence.
With their florid sex and formulaic plots, romances were a breeze to abridge. And within a few years, I shifted from Candles and Caviar to freelancing for Random House, which published A Is for Alibi, Grafton’s first Kinsey novel, in 1982. The series coincided with the rise of audiobooks and the popularity of audio abridgments, which often had me juggling authors as disparate as Oliver Sacks and Donald Trump. Abridgments were usually three to six hours, no matter the length of the original. Z would likely have been my last, since digital downloads have taken the place of audiobooks that were abridged to fit on CDs.
While romances had given me a taste for compression, that experience was almost useless when approaching Grafton’s plots, with their multiple clues and subplots that twined in and out of the story. Now I had to keep track of more than moans and rapturous sighs; I had to tackle a world of alibis, gunshots, and dead bodies.
Unlike romances, all frothy negligees and oddly boneless heroines, Grafton’s cozy details were part of what made her books so beloved. I worked hard to preserve the homey particulars: Kinsey’s hard-boiled-egg sandwiches with mayonnaise, adoration of her dashing 85-year-old landlord, and ease at long stakeouts in her VW. And her affection for the bombastic Rosie, owner of the local Hungarian restaurant and neighborhood haunt. I left in my wake a trail of excised pages — minor characters, superfluous dialogue, and piles of red herrings, dead and glassy-eyed.
I looked forward to receiving a Grafton book every few years; it was like an old friend knocking on the door. After the author approved my version of Y, I received a note from her editor, the first formal message Grafton had ever sent me: “Just wanted to pass along the good news that Sue Grafton loves the abridgment. She called it deft and excellent and really couldn’t say enough about it.”
Now I wonder whether she knew she wouldn’t be finishing Z, and if this was her way of acknowledging me while she had the chance.
I wish I had replied then, to thank her for the long pleasure of the work and the memories — of lock picks and all-night surveillance, and peanut butter sandwiches with pickles. And the enduring image of Kinsey reading herself to sleep with a paperback, not a Kindle. Just like me.
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