Gino Domenico/associated Press/file 2002
NEW YORK — Sue Grafton, a prolific author of detective novels known for an alphabetically titled series that began in 1982 with “A Is for Alibi,” has died in Santa Barbara, Calif. She was 77.
Her daughter Jamie Clark, announcing the death on Friday afternoon on the author’s website and Facebook page, said Ms. Grafton had had cancer and died overnight.
With the publication of her latest book in August, Ms. Grafton’s alphabetical series had reached “Y Is for Yesterday.” She had said she was planning to conclude it with “Z Is for Zero.”
“She was adamant that her books would never be turned into movies or TV shows,” her daughter wrote, “and in that same vein, she would never allow a ghost writer to write in her name. Because of all of those things, and out of the deep abiding love and respect for our dear sweet Sue, as far as we in the family are concerned, the alphabet now ends at Y.”
Sue Taylor Grafton was born on April 24, 1940, in Louisville, Ky. Her father, C.W. Grafton, was a lawyer who also wrote mystery novels, and her mother, the former Vivian Harnsberger, was a teacher.
Sue Grafton graduated from the University of Louisville in 1961 and tried but quickly abandoned a graduate program, instead moving to California. Her first novel, “Keziah Dane,” was published in 1967. She helped adapt her second, “The Lolly-Madonna War” (1969), into a screenplay, and after that movie was released in 1973, she worked intermittently writing for television. A series she created, “Nurse,” ran for two seasons on CBS in the early 1980s.
But she did not care for the dynamics of writing for TV and film.
“Ask me if I’d ever sell the film or TV rights to these books,” she said in a 2013 interview with The Minneapolis Star Tribune promoting “W Is for Wasted.” “No, I would not. I would never let those clowns get their hands on my work. They’d ruin it for everyone, me more than most.”
She had written seven novels before she began the alphabet series.
“Of those, No. 4 and 5 were published,” she told The Star Tribune. “The rest are in the trash.”
“A Is for Alibi” was her eighth book and, she said, “my ticket out of Hollywood.”
The notion of the alphabetical series, she said, was inspired by “The Gashlycrumb Tinies,” Edward Gorey’s macabre 1963 rhyming book in which 26 children meet bizarre ends.
“I was smitten with all those little Victorian children being dispatched in various ways,” she told The New York Times in 2015. “ ‘A is for Amy who fell down the stairs; B is for Basil assaulted by bears; C is for Clara who wasted away; D is for Desmond thrown out of a sleigh.’ Edward Gorey was deliciously bent.”
Her book series features Kinsey Millhone, a private investigator, whom “A Is for Alibi” introduced this way:
“My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed by the state of California. I’m thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids. The day before yesterday I killed someone and the fact weighs heavily on my mind.”
Ms. Grafton read the Nancy Drew books and Agatha Christie growing up, but, she said, the first book that really rocked her was Mickey Spillane’s “I, the Jury.”
“After Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie, what a revelation!” she said, “and it may have been the moment when the spirit of Kinsey Millhone first sparked to life.”
Kinsey’s debut, though, did not impress at least one critic.
“Will the series take hold?” Newgate Callendar said in reviewing “A Is for Alibi” for The Times. “This first book is competent enough, but not particularly original.”
The reading public apparently thought otherwise. The Millhone books routinely made bestseller lists. They also established a star female presence — both character and author — in a genre that leaned heavily male.
“Ms. Grafton and P.I. Millhone floated in on the same zephyr of welcome fresh air that during the past decade has brought us a number of other women writing about women operatives in the traditionally male-dominated genre of American private eye fiction,” writer Ed Weiner said in reviewing “F Is for Fugitive” for The Times in 1989.
“None of them — and Ms. Grafton may be the best of the bunch — have gone so far as to redefine the genre,” he continued. “They play it fairly conservative and conventional. But in their work there is thankfully little of the macho posturing and luggish rogue beefcake found so often in the male versions, no Hemingwayesque mine-is-bigger-than-yours competitive literary swaggering.”
Ms. Grafton said one difference between her books and the ones with male protagonists was her willingness to deal with the “human and emotional ramifications” of violent crime.
“Most of the hard-boiled male detectives go through murder and mayhem, and it has absolutely no impact on their personalities,” she said in an interview with The Times in 1985.
“I find it more interesting to see what the constant exposure to violence and death really does to a human being, how a person incorporates that into their psyche.”
Ms. Grafton leaves her third husband, Steven F. Humphrey, whom she married in 1978; three children from her previous marriages, Jamie, Leslie and Jay; a sister, Ann; four granddaughters; and one great-grandson.
Sue Grafton was forever being asked how much of her was in Kinsey Millhone, and she acknowledged that there was a sort of alter-ego connection between author and character.
But, she noted to The Seattle Times in an interview in August, there was one big difference: She realized early in the series that if she was going to write the entire alphabet, Kinsey could not age in real time and still be limber enough for a fast-moving detective yarn.
“When I started, she was 32 and I was 42,” Grafton said. “And now she’s 39 and I’m 77, which I just do not think is fair.”
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