If you enjoy mysteries, I am sure you heard by now that Sue Grafton, the author of the alphabet mysteries has died of cancer. She was 77. I first came across her who-dun-its when she was about five letters into the series. I think she had just published either E is for Evidence or F is for Fugitive.
The woman I found inside the cover was Kinsey Millhone, a protagonist that didn’t know all the answers, ate junk food, had problems with relationships and used running along the Santa Barbara waterfront to help figure out problems. I related to all of that.
It would be about 25 years later when I published my first mystery about a female gumshoe who was just discovering her talents, strengths and confidence. Kinsey Millhone was my model and Sue Grafton, my mentor (although she never knew it.)
Sue wrote 25 books, spanning the alphabet from A to Y. Her books are published in 28 countries and 26 languages.
I thought you’d like to read something from Marian Wood, Sue’s longtime editor and friend.
“In 1980, I got 60 pages of a manuscript from an agent I did not do business with. It was a snowy day and more bad weather was forecast, so I grabbed the 60 pages plus a couple of manuscripts and rode back to Brooklyn to enjoy a few snow days at home.
I can tell you, I was stunned by those 60 pages. I wanted more. I wanted the whole book. I wanted to publish this amazing writer.
But there was an obstacle. My publisher.
“I don’t get it,” he said after reading those sixty pages. Luckily, I had already given them to the marketing director, who did get it. Maybe it was because he was gay and Sue Grafton’s chutzpah didn’t scare him. Or maybe he just had a better sense of what the future was bringing—perhaps because he’d been selling in the Bay area, where new ideas seemed to have resonance. Whatever, we became a team and the publisher caved.
That was the beginning of A Is for Alibi. You might say the rest is history but to be honest, as long as that publisher remained, it was a fight to get him to see what gold we had even as the books took off and the market grew exponentially.
I’m a seat-of-the pants editor. When I read something and the bomb goes off in my head, I know it’s for me, I know it’s amazing, I know with backing, we can make it fly. And so it was with the alphabet series. Though not because of any help from a sales force that sensed the publisher’s lack of interest. It was the public who won the contest. And sales multiplied with each new book.
Sue Grafton was a find all right. She was also an extraordinary human being. Already forty with a ton of experience being pushed around by movie personnel, all she wanted was control over her work—no interference from pseudo-smart twenty-five year old movie mavens. Books offered her that. Let me tell you, by the time we connected, she was a tough, smart, and dedicated craftswoman and also the most generous and kindest writer you could work with. And so, for forty years, we worked and laughed and loved Kinsey. And so did the world it seemed.
In truth, it was a marriage made in heaven though the then agent could never have known that. In my youth, I loathed Nancy Drew and could not tolerate Agatha Christie. But here, in Kinsey, was my dream character: sharp, funny, vulnerable, and tough. And a little off the grid when it came to relationships thanks to an oddball childhood and an aunt who sort of raised her. This was a new kind of detective: a woman with quirks but also with a sense of herself, with empathy but also with street smarts. She opened a door for me and for thousands of women and, yes, men. It was a revelation how quickly men caught on to this oddball but terrific woman. She broke the gender barrier. There is a reason so many men and women named their daughters Kinsey over the years.
Thank you, Sue: You made a real difference in the lives of so many men and women even as you entertained us with so many wonderful and sometimes really scary books....
Sue died this December. She had finished the letter Y in the series. There will never be a letter Z. Just as she did not want anyone tampering with her work and therefore forbade any movies made from her books, so she made it clear there would never be a ghost writer. So with Y Is for Yesterday, the alphabet ends.”