Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, along with Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski, is one of the first female private investigators created in the feminist version of the hard-boiled detective mold. These bold women are self-reliant loners who do not need to be rescued by men and do not simply stumble upon danger. They find it in the course of their work, which they diligently carry out in the pursuit of justice. Kinsey’s life is frequently endangered as she discovers the identity of her killer. She is chased, beaten, and shot, but her bravery is demonstrated in the climax of the first novel of the series, “A” Is for Alibi. She hides in a trash bin as the killer approaches, and when he opens the lid with a butcher knife in his hand, she shoots him.
The success of Grafton’s series is due to her ability to create a sympathetic character in Kinsey Millhone, who is admirable for her quest for justice and order in a chaotic world and yet remains an ordinary woman, flawed and complex. Kinsey is a private investigator in Santa Teresa, a fictional version of Santa Barbara, California, which plays an important role in every book, but she travels to the Eastern Sierras in “N” Is for Noose (1998) and to Louisville, Kentucky, in “L” Is for Lawless (1995).
Kinsey, twice married and divorced with no children, is a homebody of sorts, feeling best when she is home alone in her small apartment, a converted garage owned by Henry Pitts, her octogenarian landlord, a retired baker who still likes to cook. She has a fondness for wine and high-calorie junk food, which she counters by jogging three miles on the beach every morning except Sunday (a habit Grafton shared until she started walking instead). Kinsey hates to cook and often eats at the tavern run by Rosie, a gruff Hungarian woman in her sixties or seventies, who usually dictates to Kinsey what she will eat.
As the series progresses, Grafton develops her characters, adding to both their present lives and revealing their pasts. Henry has a romance with Lila Sams in “C” Is for Corpse, and his brother William falls in love with and marries Rosie. Kinsey develops romantic relationships with Jonah Robb, a police officer whose marriage is off-again, on-again; Robert Dietz, a private eye in Carson Lake, Nevada; and handsome police officer Cheney Phillips, but none develop into a full-blown, lasting relationship. After staying in Dietz’s condominium for a month in “N” Is for Noose, Kinsey says, “My general policy is to keep my distance, thus avoiding a lot of unruly emotion.” Grafton gradually and sympathetically reveals the causes behind Kinsey’s isolation and her inability to trust people, even her friends. After Kinsey leaves Dietz’s condominium, she begins an investigation into an officer’s death in Nota Lake in the Sierras. Feeling lonely in her isolated cabin, she says:Times like this, I longed for a husband or a dog, but I never could decide which would be more trouble in the long run. At least husbands don’t bark and tend to start off paper-trained.
Kinsey’s sense of humor and her direct way of speaking—using slang and the occasional swear word—make this loner both more human and more endearing.
Grafton gradually reveals Kinsey’s past: Her parents were killed in a car accident when she was five years old, and she was raised by her aunt Gin. The family disowned Kinsey’s mother at the time of her marriage, and Grafton reveals that Kinsey has cousins in Lompoc in “J” Is for Judgment (1993). In “O” Is for Outlaw, the reader learns about Kinsey’s first husband, Mickey Magrunder, a police officer to whom she was married for nine months. Betrayal, isolation, and troubled family relations—particularly events in a family’s history that create problems in the present—are themes that penetrate all the novels in the series.
Kinsey is thirty-two at the start of the series and ages only a few months with every book, so that most of the series takes place in the 1980’s. This allows Kinsey to continue to live in a world without cell phones, computers, and Internet access, and her...
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