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September 10, 2013

Book: Sue Grafton — Ongoing success no mystery for the ‘Alphabet Lady’

Private investigator Kinsey Millhone represents that most reliable of brands to the mystery reader. For more than three decades, Sue Grafton has woven finely structured stories about Millhone’s adventures in and about the fictional town of Santa Teresa on the California coast. Each Millhone book of novel length has a letter of the alphabet as part of the title. As Grafton recently shared with LEO, anyone who forgets her name gets told to simply “go in a bookstore and tell them you want ‘The Alphabet Lady’ and they’ll set you straight.”

Publishing house Putnam certainly understands how to take advantage of a great branding opportunity. For years now, the cover of each new Millhone novel has been a model of simplicity: no art — just a primary color and the featured letter in huge type. “W is for Wasted” is the latest, and Grafton will be giving a reading/signing at Carmichael’s on Thursday.

Grafton recalled the inspiration that was key to starting the Alphabet Series: “I knew it was a smart move to link titles, because that tells a reader that a new book is out. Harry Kemelman did it with days of the week (e.g., “Friday the Rabbi Slept Late”). So I was stumbling around, figuring out how to accomplish that, and I was reading Edward Gorey’s ‘Ghastlycrumb Tinies.’ When he did ‘A is for Amy, who fell down the stairs/B is for Basil, assaulted by bears,’ it was wonderful stuff. Right away I thought, ‘What if you did a series of titles based on the alphabet?’ I got down and wrote as many crime-related words in alphabetical order as I could think of. When I could see that there were probably enough to cover the alphabet, I started working on ‘A is for Alibi.’ Who knew it would work?”

But it did work. Grafton wasn’t new to mystery writing — for one thing, it was part of her family history — but the Millhone tale “B Is for Burglar” won the inaugural Anthony Best Novel Award (and three more Anthonys have been given to Millhone stories).

Grafton, a U of L grad, divides her time between her native Louisville and the Santa Barbara area. The Millhone character never took root in our region, though: “When I wrote (“A is for Alibi”), I’d been living in southern California from ’64 to ’73. I moved my husband — he got his PhD from Ohio State — and at that point I had enough distance from Santa Barbara that I could write about it. In some ways it was easier to write about when I wasn’t there anymore. For me, southern California and crime are synonymous. Raymond Chandler and Ross McDonald: You can’t do better than that tradition, in my opinion.”

Her father was a Kentucky lawyer who squeezed in after-hours writing time to produce a few novels. “I watched him work all of his natural life at the law — which he loved — but his true passion was mystery fiction. He thought he would get back to that when he retired, but he died. That was a little lesson for me right there: ‘If you want to do something, you’d better do it.’”

Working your passion and pursuing accomplishment are certainly not new concepts to Grafton, though she learned a new lesson not long ago after making light of recent trends for writers who self-publish (“I just wasn’t tuned into the fact that times had changed. I totally regretted shooting my mouth off like that.”) This author has an established place in the mainstream publishing world, but that’s just part of what she’ll need for the considerable task before her — answering her many readers’ need to know how the alphabet will end for Kinsey Millhone. “It’s taken me two years per book — which means I’ve got six years left. I don’t think most people know what they’re going to be doing in six years. Part of my issue is, ‘Will I still have the juice?’”

It’s easy to answer that she still has it now, as she has moved her beloved private eye’s character arc forward while thoughtfully balancing views about the homeless who are vital in the plot of “W is for Wasted.”

Tested and decorated veteran that she is, Grafton knows her next step: “I’m looking for the storyline for ‘X’ — which has got to be Xenophobe or Xenophobia. There’s some other interesting x-words, but at least xenophobia suggests some motive for a crime. I had hoped that by the time I got to this letter there would be a new crime starting with ‘x’ and I could just incorporate it. But criminals are so unimaginative — they’re just doing the same old damn thing. That puts me at a disadvantage.”