Sue Grafton Grafton, Sue - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sue Grafton 1940-

American novelist, short story writer, and screenwriter.

The following entry presents an overview of Grafton's career through 2002.

An accomplished and popular mystery writer, Grafton has been credited—along with authors Marcia Muller and Sara Paretsky—as one of the first novelists to introduce strong female protagonists into the genre of hard-boiled detective fiction. Her recurring protagonist, private detective Kinsey Millhone, appeared initially in 1982 in “A” Is for Alibi—Grafton's first novel in her commercially successful series of alphabetically-titled mysteries. Millhone exhibits many of the character traits typical of her male predecessors, including Dashiell Hammett's the Continental Op and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. Grafton adds to the conventional elements of the detective genre by delving increasingly into the psychological aspects of her characters' investigations and by providing in-depth details about her protagonist's personal life.

Biographical Information

Grafton was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on April 24, 1940, to C. W. Grafton, a writer and attorney, and Vivian Boisseau, a high school chemistry teacher. Grafton was encouraged by her parents at an early age to pursue her love of literature. She received a B.A. in English at the University of Louisville in 1961. In the fall of 1961, she began her graduate studies in English at the University of Cincinnati. Grafton dropped out of the program before taking her final exams the first year, finding the program stifling and overly political. Grafton moved to California in 1962 and began writing short stories and novels. Grafton held a series of jobs—several in hospitals and other medical settings—using many of these experiences as source material for her later novels. In the early 1970s, she started writing for situation comedies and made-for-television movies, including an episode of the sitcom Rhoda and the television adaptation of Jane Adams's Sex and the Single Parent. Grafton adapted her novel, The Lolly-Madonna War (1969), into a screenplay for a feature film in 1973. After “A” Is for Alibi was published in 1982, Grafton continued the Millhone series, titling each successive book alphabetically. Grafton has won numerous awards, including the Shamus Award for best hardcover private eye novel from the Private Eye Writers of America, the Anthony Award from Bouchercon, the Falcon Award from the Maltese Falcon Society of Japan for “F” Is for Fugitive (1989), an American Mystery Award, a Ridley Award from the Partners in Crime and Boise Chapter of Sisters in Crime, and the Readers' Choice Award from the Friends of Libraries and Ameritech. She has also won the Doubleday Mystery Guild Award six times for “E” Is for Evidence (1988), “F” Is for Fugitive, “G” Is for Gumshoe (1990), “H” Is for Homicide (1991), “I” Is for Innocent (1992), and “K” Is for Killer (1994).

Major Works

Grafton's series of alphabetically-titled detective novels focus on a twice-divorced private investigator named Kinsey Millhone. Millhone is a tough-talking and resourceful former police officer who often uses her police connections to assist her on cases. While she does not shrink from confrontations, Millhone prefers to settle her disputes with reason. She has occasionally been forced to resort to violence throughout the series, but it is typically in self-defense. Although the Millhone novels follow many of the conventions of detective fiction, there are definite feminist overtones and strong themes of female self-empowerment that are atypical to the genre as a whole. Millhone is an orphan who was raised by her Aunt Virginia, an eccentric woman who taught her to shoot a gun at age eight. Virginia warned Millhone to never become financially dependent on a man, because it would leave her vulnerable to abuse—a maxim Millhone follows religiously. After Virginia dies, Millhone creates a surrogate family out of her longtime friends, many of whom become recurring characters in the series. In “A” Is for Alibi, the first book in the series, Millhone is hired by Nikki Fife to find the killer of her husband, Lawrence. Nikki has finished serving an eight-year jail sentence for Lawrence's murder, but she swears she is innocent. Lawrence's first wife, Gwen, and his law partner, Charlie Scorsoni, are also prime suspects in the crime. In the course of the investigation, Millhone additionally solves two related murders, as well as the case for which she was hired. “D” Is for Deadbeat (1987) focuses on Millhone's investigation of ex-convict John Daggett's murder. Daggett's conviction stems from a drunk driving incident in which he killed five people, leaving their remaining family members emotionally destroyed. Daggett's killer turns out to be a relative of one of his victims, causing Millhone to speculate that his murder may have balanced the scales of justice. With “J” Is for Judgment (1993), Grafton balances the typical investigative-thriller aspects of the Millhone series with a thoughtful examination of Millhone's family history. Millhone is hired by the California Fidelity Insurance Company to investigate a possible insurance fraud. The subject of the investigation is Wendell Jaffe, a man who is presumed dead, but who has recently been spotted at a resort hotel in Mexico after his wife has been paid by the insurance company. Five years earlier, Jaffe was thought to have committed suicide after embezzling millions of dollars from financial investors. During her investigation, Millhone discovers that she has an entire family—aunts, cousins, and a grandmother—who knew of her existence yet never made any effort to contact her. Grafton further deepens her protagonist's characterization in “K” Is for Killer. The case forces Millhone, a morning person, to do most of her investigating during the night as she questions various people such as nurses on the night shift at a hospital, prostitutes, and all-night disc jockeys. After Millhone identifies the murderer, the police refuse to arrest her suspect. Frustrated by this apparent injustice, Millhone turns her suspect's name over to the Mafia, who have a vested interest in the crime. She knows that the mobsters will kill the murderer, thus turning Millhone into the “killer” of the novel's title. In a marked change of tone from her previous novel, “L” Is for Lawless (1995) follows Millhone in an almost lighthearted cross-country race to solve a ten-year-old bank robbery and recover the stolen money. “O” Is for Outlaw (2001) offers another examination of Millhone's past, notably her marriage to her first husband, Mickey Magruder, a character rarely mentioned in the series. Millhone divorced Mickey, a former vice officer, after he asked her to give him an alibi for a night when he was accused of beating a suspect to death. After she finds evidence that exonerates Mickey from the crime, Millhone must reevaluate the case and her reasons for leaving Mickey.

Critical Reception

Critics have often compared Grafton to fellow mystery writer Sara Paretsky and have found a number of similarities between the two authors' heroines, Kinsey Millhone and V. I. Warshawski. Several reviewers have asserted that Grafton's work displays a distinct feminist perspective, with Scott Christianson stating that, “[Grafton] appropriates hard-boiled style and works through it to articulate her own brand of feminism.” Other critics have disagreed with this assessment, arguing that Grafton has simply adopted the form of the traditional male detective novel without changing the genre's sensibilities. Priscilla L. Walton has commented that, “[W]hile the author may not radically subvert the detective formula, and while her politics may be problematic, she nonetheless works to implement female subjectivity in and through her writings, and affords women an opportunity to experience the assumption of a subject position.” Commentators have also noted a vein of dark humor in Grafton's work. Some reviewers have appreciated Millhone's irreverent attitude toward serious subjects, such as illness, death, and danger, asserting that it contributes to the likability and authenticity of the character. Richard Lipez has stated, “There's a believability to Millhone that comes from the way she kids her own insecurities even as she struggles with them, sometimes prevailing, sometimes not.” Certain critics have argued that Grafton's prolific body of work has caused the Millhone series to suffer from repetitious storylines and weak writing. “L” Is for Lawless has been particularly criticized for what some reviewers saw as its contrived plot and stilted characterizations. However, most critics have contended that despite the flaws in certain novels, the Millhone series has not yet lost its overall appeal.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Keziah Dane (novel) 1967

The Lolly-Madonna War (novel) 1969

Lolly-Madonna XXX [with Rodney Carr-Smith; adapted from her novel, The Lolly-Madonna War] (screenplay) 1973

Sex and the Single Parent [adapted from the book by Jane Adams] (screenplay) 1979

Walking through the Fire [adapted from the novel by Laurel Lee] (screenplay) 1979

Mark, I Love You [adapted from the book by Hal Pinter] (screenplay) 1980

“A” Is for Alibi (novel) 1982

“B” Is for Burglar (novel) 1985

Love on the Run [with Steven F. Humphrey] (teleplay) 1985

“C” Is for Corpse (novel) 1986

“D” Is for Deadbeat (novel) 1987

“E” Is for Evidence (novel) 1988

“F” Is for Fugitive (novel) 1989

“G” Is for Gumshoe (novel) 1990

“H” Is for Homicide (novel) 1991

“I” Is for Innocent (novel) 1992

“J” Is for Judgment (novel) 1993

“K” Is for Killer (novel) 1994

“L” Is for Lawless (novel) 1995

“M” Is for Malice (novel) 1996

“N” Is for Noose (novel) 1998

“O” Is for Outlaw (novel) 2001

“P” Is for Peril (novel) 2001

“Q” Is for Quarry (novel) 2002

Kate Brandt and Paula Lichtenberg (essay date January 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brandt, Kate, and Paula Lichtenberg. “On the Case with V. I. and Kinsey.” Hotwire: The Journal of Women's Music and Culture 10, no. 1 (January 1984): 48-50.

[In the following essay, Brandt and Lichtenberg compare the fictional detectives V. I. Warshawski and Kinsey Millhone created by authors Sara Paretsky and Grafton, respectively.]

Chicago private investigator V. I. Warshawski has been kidnapped at gunpoint and beaten up by criminals several times. She was unconscious for six hours after her car crashed (the brake fluid had been drained); her back was burned when acid was thrown at her. Her face has been slashed with a knife; she's been shot at. She's...

(The entire section is 2031 words.)

Maureen T. Reddy (essay date 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Reddy, Maureen T. “The Feminist Counter Tradition in Crime: Cross, Grafton, Paretsky, and Wilson.” In The Cunning Craft, edited by Ronald G. Walker and June M. Frazer, pp. 174-87. Macomb, Ill.: Western Illinois University, 1990.

[In the following essay, Reddy examines the genre of the feminist crime novel, focusing on four major novelists—including Grafton—within the genre, and considers the genre's potential new directions.]

When Carolyn Heilbrun published her first mystery novel under the name Amanda Cross in 1964, she began the revival of the feminist crime novel, a literary form that had been moribund since the publication in 1935 of Dorothy Sayers'...

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Dick Lochte (review date 10 May 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lochte, Dick. “When the Dick Is a Dame.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (10 May 1992): 2, 12.

[In the following review, Lochte lauds “I” Is for Innocent for its entertaining plot and its ability to interweave protagonist Kinsey Millhone's personal life with elements from the traditional detective story.]

When Sue Grafton made her debut as a mystery novelist in 1982 with ‘A’ Is for Alibi, her sleuth-narrator introduced herself as follows: “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...

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Richard Lipez (review date 16 May 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lipez, Richard. “The Quick and the Dead.” Washington Post Book World 23, no. 20 (16 May 1993): 11.

[In the following review, Lipez compliments the grit and humor of “J” Is for Judgment.]

Crime is never funny to the people it happens to—or, if it's murder, to their grieving survivors—so being funny in crime fiction takes a special knack. By coincidence, four mystery writers who inject wit into their stories about sordid criminality—and get away with it, wonderfully in three cases, barely in one—have new novels out this month.

Southern California P.I. Kinsey Millhone, of Sue Grafton's popular “alphabet” series, is a brainy,...

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Patricia Craig (review date 3 September 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Craig, Patricia. Review of “J” Is for Judgment, by Sue Grafton. Times Literary Supplement, no. 4718 (3 September 1993): 24.

[In the following review, Craig praises “J” Is for Judgment as a rousing read and cherishes its heroine's sense of autonomy.]

Ten down, sixteen to go. Will Sue Grafton be able to keep up the pace? Her alphabetical adventure series shows no signs of flagging—Kinsey Millhone is still up there with the giants of the private eye genre, as magnetic as Marlowe, as insouciant as Spenser. When a strange man surprises Kinsey on the balcony of his hotel room [in “J” Is for Judgment], she isn't at a loss for a...

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Peter J. Rabinowitz (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rabinowitz, Peter J. “‘Reader, I Blew Him Away’: Convention and Transgression in Sue Grafton.” In Famous Last Words: Changes in Gender and Narrative Closure, edited by Allison Booth, pp. 326-44. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1993.

[In the following essay, Rabinowitz examines “A” Is for Alibi, its entry into the world of hard-boiled detective fiction, and its role as a feminist text.]

The sex was very good and very strong but the fact remained that I was still in the middle of an investigation and he still had not been crossed off my list. … I couldn't really afford to take the chance. Unless, of...

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Patricia E. Johnson (essay date spring 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Johnson, Patricia E. “Sex and Betrayal in the Detective Fiction of Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky.” Journal of Popular Culture 27, no. 4 (spring 1994): 97-106.

[In the following essay, Johnson investigates the trope of sex and betrayal in the hard-boiled detective fiction of Grafton and Sara Paretsky.]

This essay focuses on the updating and feminization of a basic trope that has appeared in traditional, male, hard-boiled detective fiction and film noir ever since Sam Spade met Brigid O'Shaughnessy: the professional detective who becomes sexually involved with a suspect who then turns out to be implicated in the crime. This occurs in several recent...

(The entire section is 4148 words.)

Maureen Corrigan (review date 17 April 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Corrigan, Maureen. “Kinsey After Dark.” Washington Post Book World 24, no. 16 (17 April 1994): 11.

[In the following review, Corrigan argues that “K” Is for Killer is unsuitable for those unfamiliar with the Kinsey Millhone series, but loyal fans will find the novel interesting.]

One of the advantages of series fiction is its power to postpone the resolution of a suspenseful situation over the course of a few novels. Like those Saturday afternoon serials of yore—The Falcon, Buck Rogers, The Lone Ranger—many a mystery novel has tied its readers up in knots over some subplot complication and abandoned them on the railroad...

(The entire section is 650 words.)

Patricia Craig (review date 21 October 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Craig, Patricia. “Female Virtues.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4777 (21 October 1994): 20.

[In the following review, Craig compares Grafton's “K” Is for Killer with Sara Paretsky's Tunnel Vision and Patricia D. Cornwell's The Body Farm.]

There is a moment in the latest Sue Grafton novel, K Is for Killer, when the heroine Kinsey Millhone leafs through some back numbers of the magazine Family Circle and finds herself bemused: “To me, it was like reading about life on an alien planet.” What is confronting her, causing distaste and a rueful incomprehension, is a flawless domestic world of beauty aids, floor-cleaners,...

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Emily Melton (review date July 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Melton, Emily. Review of “L” Is for Lawless, by Sue Grafton. Booklist 91, no. 21 (July 1995): 1835.

[In the following review, Melton states that although the novel is flawed, “L” Is for Lawless is still likely to please Grafton fans.]

Grafton has covered 11 letters of the alphabet and produced 11 bestsellers starring the popular Kinsey Millhone. The gritty PI has reached near-cult status for many readers, guaranteeing a built-in audience for all her adventures. But Grafton's huge success and the accompanying pressure to produce another 15 “alphabet” books seems to have resulted—at least in her last couple of efforts—in less...

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Richard Lipez (review date 17 September 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lipez, Richard. “Mysteries.” Washington Post Book World 25, no. 38 (17 September 1995): 8.

[In the following positive review, Lipez describes “L” Is for Lawless as “droll” and “larky.”]

“I don't mean to bitch, but in the future I intend to hesitate before I do a favor for the friend of a friend.” That's the attention-getting opening line of Sue Grafton's droll, larky “L” Is for Lawless, the latest in her Kinsey Millhone P.I. series. This one goes slack, even improbable, now and again, but Millhone is as companionable as ever during a case that takes her from her cozy Southern California digs to some of the least inviting...

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Scott Christianson (essay date 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Christianson, Scott. “Talkin' Trash and Kickin' Butt: Sue Grafton's Hard-boiled Feminism.” In Feminism in Women's Detective Fiction, edited by Glenwood Irons, pp. 127-47. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Christianson maintains that Grafton's hard-boiled detective novels challenge the notion of male domination and avow female liberation.]

Sue Grafton's series of hard-boiled mystery novels, featuring the female private investigator Kinsey Millhone, challenges patriarchy and asserts feminine autonomy.1 As the narrator of Grafton's stories, Millhone talks tough and cracks wise—and occasionally cracks skulls and...

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Priscilla L. Walton (essay date 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Walton, Priscilla L. “‘E’ Is for En/Gendering Readings: Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone.” In Women Times Three: Writers, Detectives, Readers, edited by Kathleen Gregory Klein, pp. 101-15. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Walton analyzes the notion of feminist empowerment in Grafton's detective novels.]

Sue Grafton launched her alphabetized detective series in 1982, with the publication of “A” Is for Alibi. The author of eleven Kinsey Millhone novels to date, she has produced approximately one book a year since 1982, each of which has enjoyed an enormous popularity. Grafton's...

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Harriet Waugh (review date 5 April 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Waugh, Harriet. “A Choice of Recent Thrillers.” Spectator 278, no. 8801 (5 April 1997): 38.

[In the following review, Waugh admires the sophisticated plot of “M” Is for Malice, but also finds the novel predictable.]

[In] Sue Grafton's M Is for Malice Kinsey Millhone, Grafton's sturdy, female private eye is asked to find the black sheep of the Malek family when the estate (a 40-million-dollar company) has to be settled. Guy, the missing member of the family, left home, unmourned, at 16 after countless misdemeanours fuelled by drugs and drink. His three boorish, greedy brothers say he was disinherited by their father, but the will cannot be...

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Eugen Weber (review date 31 October 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Weber, Eugen. “L.A. Confidential.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (31 October 1999): 11.

[In the following review, Weber argues that “O” Is for Outlaw is “weaker than Grafton's usual fare.”]

All the world's the same, only parts of it are different; and one of the world's most different parts is Southern California, which features so largely in Sue Grafton's alphabet series. Fifteenth of that ilk, O Is for Outlaw demonstrates that, for PIs as for venison, ripeness is all. The gossamer-tough figure of Kinsey Millhone gets better every time: and the distance between L.A. and Kinsey's home base in Santa Barbara—sorry Santa Teresa—seems...

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Sue Grafton and Stephanie Stassel (interview date 3 April 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Grafton, Sue, and Stephanie Stassel. “Sue Grafton's Best-Selling Mysteries—Each Titled with a Different Letter—Feature Her Smart-Alecky But Down-to-Earth Alter Ego, Kinsey Millhone.” Los Angeles Times (3 April 2000): E1.

[In the following interview, Grafton discusses the success of and inspiration behind her Kinsey Millhone series of mysteries.]

Fifteen down and 11 books to go. For Sue Grafton, it's a good thing there are only 26 letters in the alphabet.

Since “A” Is for Alibi was published in 1982, Grafton has been working her way to Z, chronicling the adventures of Kinsey Millhone, a tough, unpretentious private detective...

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Publishers Weekly (review date 21 May 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of “P” Is for Peril, by Sue Grafton. Publishers Weekly 248, no. 21 (21 May 2001): 84.

[In the following review, the critic offers a negative assessment of “P” Is for Peril, criticizing Grafton's “lackluster characters.”]

PI Kinsey Millhone's trademark dry sense of humor is largely absent in the first half of [“P” Is for Peril,] the 15th book in this justifiably popular series, though it resurfaces as the suspense finally begins to build in the second half. In the bleak November of 1986, Kinsey looks into the disappearance of Dr. Dowan Purcell, who's been missing for nine weeks. Dr. Purcell is an elderly physician who...

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Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 August 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of “Q” Is for Quarry, by Sue Grafton. Kirkus Reviews 70, no. 16 (15 August 2002): 1177.

[In the following review, the critic criticizes the plot of “Q” Is for Quarry, calling it “tangled and routine.”]

Back in 1969, Det. Stacey Oliphant of the county sheriff's office and Lt. Con Dolan of Santa Teresa Homicide discovered the body of a young woman in Grayson Quarry who was never identified. Now that Stacey's been diagnosed with lymphoma, Con, himself sidelined by his heart condition, asks Kinsey Millhone (“P” Is for Peril,) to do the legwork for the aging buddies as they struggle one last time to close the case. It's an...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Grafton, Sue, and Bruce Taylor. “G Is for (Sue) Grafton.” Armchair Detective 22, no. 1 (winter 1989): 4-13.

Grafton discusses a variety of topics, including her evolution as a writer, her influences, the marketing strategies for her novels, and her narrative voice.

Miller, Ronald C. “Private Eye.” Armchair Detective 26, no. 1 (winter 1993): 111-12.

Miller praises “I” Is for Innocent as the best novel in the Millhone series to date.

Schaffer, Rachel. “Armed (with Wit) and Dangerous: Sue Grafton's Sense of Black Humor.” Armchair Detective 30, no. 3 (summer...

(The entire section is 232 words.)