Sue Grafton

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Kate Brandt and Paula Lichtenberg (essay date January 1984)

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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 been tied up and thrown into a polluted swamp, chased into icy Lake Michigan, and trapped in a burning building.

Kinsey Millhone, a private eye in Southern California, has been shot twice and abducted at gunpoint; injected with barbiturates; had her nose broken twice. She's been run off the road, totaling her car and ending up with a banged-up leg, whiplash, bruised ribs, and a head injury. Oh, yes, and then there was the time a package bomb exploded, resulting in temporary deafness, a mild concussion, bruises, burns, and shock.

Is this any way to earn a living?

It is, if you ask the numerous fans of these two fictional detectives. Feminist readers have always been attracted to strong, independent, athletic characters in literature, so it's no surprise that V. I. and Kinsey—the creations of award-winning novelists Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton, respectively—are so popular with women mystery lovers.

But are these two literary shamuses people you would actually want to know?

Even Lotty Herschel, V. I.'s close friend and doctor (and if V. I. doesn't have good medical insurance, she had better be on good terms with a physician!), admonishes her (in Blood Shot), “You seem to be in love with danger and death. You make life very hard for those who love you.”

But that may be one of the things that readers like about V. I. and Kinsey: while we battle daily with the inequities and indignities of being women in a sexist society and a crumbling economy, we can't help but applaud these two feisty detectives for always putting the bad guy in his place. Sara Paretsky, who was in corporate management when she wrote the first three Warshawski books, points out in The Armchair Detective (summer 1991) that a private investigator can thumb her nose at authority—“V. I. was able to do things that I, of course, as a middle manager would be fired for saying or doing.”

In many other ways, however, V. I. and Kinsey are just ordinary working girls like the rest of us. Their jobs keep them so busy that there's little time for housecleaning or cooking—not to mention relationships (both are divorced). They struggle to make ends meet on a modest income. They jog to keep in shape, unwind from the stresses of work, and avoid dieting. They have trouble fitting strictly social dates into their schedules—and usually resist doing so in any event, because they are so focused on work.

They are feminists, having had their independent sensibilities passed along to them in childhood. In Indemnity Only, V. I.'s mother tells her, “Any girl can be pretty—but to take care of yourself you must have brains. And you must have a job, a profession. You must work.” And in D Is for Deadbeat, the aunt who raised Kinsey advises her, “A woman should never, never, never be financially dependent on anyone, especially a man, because...

(This entire section contains 2031 words.)

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the minute you are dependent, you could be abused.”

Although both characters are heterosexual, lesbians in particular can relate to V. I. and Kinsey, since they both find solace and roots in chosen families rather than biological ones. While many lesbians find themselves estranged from (or even disowned by) their birth families because of their homosexuality, V. I. and Kinsey are orphans, without brothers or sisters. V. I.'s mother died of cancer when she was a teenager; her father, a policeman, died from emphysema ten years later. Kinsey lost her parents in an automobile crash when she was five years old, and the aunt who raised her is also now dead.

So V. I. and Kinsey create their own families. For V. I., the older Dr. Lotty serves as mother and comrade, patching up her confidence and her psyche as well as her injuries. She has two protective father figures: her late father's police protégé, Lt. Bobby Mallory, as well as her elderly neighbor Mr. Contreras. The lieutenant takes on the sterner aspects of the job, castigating V. I. for the risks she takes, and her neighbor assumes the nurturing ones—cooking meals and noting what time she comes in at night (and with whom).

For Kinsey, it is her landlord, the eighty-three-year-old crossword puzzle creator Henry Pitts, who acts as parent. Henry worries about Kinsey, gives her advice, and feeds her (he is a former commercial baker), as does local restaurant owner Rosie, who often decides what Kinsey is going to eat, whether she likes it or not (such as a green pepper salad in B Is for Burglar: “I bet you been eating junk, right? … Here's what you gonna get.”)


V. I. and Kinsey have so much in common that one could see them being best friends and partners: going out for a morning jog together, solving cases as a team, unwinding with a big meal and a drink at Rosie's (or at the Belmont Diner or the Golden Glow Bar in Chicago). It's a scenario that makes fans of the two detectives swoon—but could it ever happen?

For starters, there's the problem of location. V. I. is Chicago born and bred, a diehard Cubs fan, as gritty as her Midwestern city, while Kinsey works out of Santa Teresa, a Southern California beach town. And although one would never describe Kinsey as “laid-back,” she definitely has the personality of a woman who has never had to dig her car out of knee-high snow drifts.

It's as difficult to imagine Kinsey in Chicago with the Wabash el shaking her office window as it is to visualize the intense and urban V. I. jogging on the beach under palm trees. So where would they live?

And who would rent to them? Both have had their apartments destroyed as a result of their work. After her place was set afire, V. I. moved into a new building, where she met Mr. Contreras, who turned out to be the only neighbor who didn't want to have her evicted after her new apartment was broken into. And Henry, bless his heart, completely redesigned and rebuilt the converted garage in which Kinsey lives after her enemies blew it up; would you move away from a landlord like that?

Even if they found a mutually compatible city, their approaches to their jobs differ. Kinsey, an ex-cop, is accustomed to dropping by the police station for help from her former colleagues. V. I., who was a lawyer before becoming a private eye, has an antagonistic relationship with the local police; this is due in no small part to her surrogate father Bobby, who works there and often expresses his opinion that she should leave her unladylike line of work and do something more feminine (like marry and have children).

Still, the ties between V. I. and Bobby are strong, almost blood ties, and that's another reason why V. I. and Kinsey might be at odds if they tried to work together. V. I. has a strong sense of family. She adored her mother, Gabriella, an Italian opera lover and singer in her native country, and her Polish-American father, police sergeant Tony; she speaks of them often. V. I. also has relatives in the Chicago area, and while she has little in common with them, and they share Bobby's disdain for her work (although it doesn't stop them from involving her in cases to solve their problems), V. I. still recognizes and respects their relationship to her.

Kinsey, on the other hand, is an orphan by temperament as well as by circumstance. Having lost her parents at such a young age, she admits to little connection with them. However, in D Is for Deadbeat she acknowledges having been influenced by the unconventional aunt who raised her: “She'd taught me to shoot when I was eight. She'd refused to teach me to cook, as she felt it was boring and would only make me fat.” And when Kinsey discovers in J Is for Judgment that she in fact has aunts, uncles, and cousins living nearby who want to re-establish contact with her, she is more horrified than excited: “I could see in a flash what a strange pleasure I'd taken in being related to no one. I'd actually managed to feel superior about my isolation.”

For Kinsey, this isolation frequently extends to her relationships with other women. With the exception of Vera Lipton (an insurance adjuster at the company where Kinsey used to be employed) and gruff restaurateur Rosie, Kinsey has no female friends, and even Vera and Rosie can hardly be classified as close confidantes—certainly not call-in-the-middle-of-the night-and-cry buddies.

V. I.'s relationship with Lotty, on the other hand, is more intimate. The two have been friends for twenty years, and V. I. definitely has shown up on Lotty's doorstep at all hours, even if it's usually to have a wound stitched up. Still, they know all aspects of each other's lives and feelings, and when their friendship is jeopardized in Guardian Angel, it is a potential loss that V. I. takes quite seriously.

Faithful readers would have a difficult time envisioning our two tough investigators sitting at the kitchen table together, schmoozing over a cup of coffee. (What, and take time away from a case?) And we certainly couldn't picture them chatting about their boyfriends. When it comes to romantic relationships, the word “commitment” is not in the vocabularies of these women. Whether because of a fear of abandonment caused by their parents’ deaths, an aversion to having their independent lifestyles curtailed, or a lack of eligible men (who aren't threatened by strong women), neither V. I. nor Kinsey has had a sustained relationship throughout their respective series of books.

But both have “fallback” boyfriends—ex-lovers they can call for conversation or companionship or, more likely, contacts. Not surprisingly for these single-minded workaholics, their exes are men with whom they have professional as well as personal relationships. V. I. frequently calls newspaper reporter Murray Ryerson when she needs to know what his sources say about a case in which she is involved. But, as V. I. acknowledges in Burn Marks, “At times we've been friendly enough to be lovers, but both of us covering the same scene and having strong personalities makes it hard to avoid conflict.”

Kinsey has a police contact in Jonah Robb, a Missing Persons lieutenant who was her lover during the “off” phases of his on-again, off-again marriage (until she finally decided in J Is for Judgment that she had troubles enough, and removed herself from “the situation”).

These two women—self-reliant loners with empty refrigerators, perfunctory love lives, and dangerous jobs—have become favorites of readers, especially women readers. Their exploits routinely make it to the best-seller lists. Maybe that's because when those lists are otherwise filled with advice books on how to communicate with men or how to increase our efficiency so that we can “do it all”—not to mention the thrillers where the only female characters are corpses—we prefer to identify with the quick-witted Kinsey Millhone, who admits that her notion of setting an elegant table is to not leave the knife sticking out of the mayonnaise jar (D Is for Deadbeat), or the determined V. I. Warshawski, who breaks into buildings but also leaves the breakfast dishes in the sink with last night's supper plates and those from a few other meals (Killing Orders).

And really, what are a few gunshots between friends?


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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.

Maureen T. Reddy (essay date 1990)

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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' Gaudy Night.In the Last Analysis, the first Amanda Cross book, appeared just a year after Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique brought feminist issues back to public attention, following Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex by nearly two decades.1 Heilbrun was doubly important in what has come to be known as the “second wave” of feminism: as Carolyn Heilbrun, she produced some of the earliest and most influential feminist literary criticism, while as Amanda Cross she brought a feminist perspective to the crime novel, significantly altering the genre. Feminist literary criticism, feminism as a social movement, and feminist crime novels have grown up together, so to speak. Just as feminist literary criticism challenges the traditional assumptions of the discipline of literary studies, so too does the feminist crime novel challenge the conventions of crime fiction. Feminist crime novels are best understood as constituting a new genre, less part of an existing tradition than a distinct counter-tradition.2 As this counter-tradition develops, expands, and deepens, numerous shared features and variations on those features become discernible.

In this essay I focus on four recent additions to established series—Sara Paretsky's Blood Shot (1988), Amanda Cross's A Trap for Fools (1989), Sue Grafton's “F” Is for Fugitive (1989), and Barbara Wilson's The Dog Collar Murders (1989)—in order to assess the current condition of the feminist crime novel, its characteristic preoccupations, and its new directions. Each of these four novels fits within the genre of feminist crime fiction, but also belongs to a particular sub-genre: Paretsky's and Grafton's series focus on professional private investigators, Cross's on an academic amateur, and Wilson's on a lesbian amateur. Exceptionally popular among mystery readers, these four writers have also been singled out for critical attention and praise in both the popular and the academic press.

Although the four series are at quite different stages of development—A Trap for Fools is the ninth novel featuring Kate Fansler in twenty-five years, while “F” Is for Fugitive is the sixth Kinsey Millhone novel since 1982, Blood Shot the fifth V. I. Warshawski novel since 1982, and The Dog Collar Murders just the third Pam Nilsen book since 1984—all are late enough in their respective series so that the detectives’ characters are well established. This is not to say that Cross, Grafton, Paretsky, and Wilson fail to develop their detectives’ characters further in these novels, but simply that the novels build upon foundations established in earlier books in the series. Cross's Kate Fansler, for instance, has worked through crises in confidence and gone through a revolution in her (and her creator's) conception of her role as a woman professor and detective in earlier novels (Reddy 50-66). Similarly, Paretsky has explored her hero's reasons for working as a detective, her family background, and her professional experience in the four preceding Warshawski novels, while Grafton's [“A” Is for Alibi] through [“E” Is for Evidence] books provide information on Kinsey's personal history and her current pared-down lifestyle. Wilson detailed Pam's coming out as a lesbian in Murder in the Collective (1984) and explored some of the personal and political implications of that choice in Sisters of the Road (1986). At this particular moment in all four series, the detectives are presented as having achieved some level of self-acceptance and as having developed strategies for negotiating their social worlds. Concomitantly, the authors have attained critical and commercial success sufficiently to justify assuming a readership familiar with their earlier work. Finally, that readership presumably has acquired some degree of familiarity and comfort with the detectives.

The plot of each novel, like most other crime fiction, follows the progress of an investigation, initially galvanized by a murder and propelled forward by the detective's (and the reader's) desire to discover the author of the crime. However, the investigation of all but “F” Is for Fugitive rapidly shifts into a larger, explicitly feminist investigation of social conditions under patriarchy. With the exception of Grafton's criminal, each of the murderers turns out to be linked in some fairly direct way to an institution that oppresses women; the murder is shown to have been precipitated by the murderer's fear of exposure of wrongdoing and consequent loss of status and power within that institution. Grafton's murderer is a woman who is excluded from these institutions because of gender, with this exclusion sparking in her a consuming rage that finally leads her to kill. In all these novels, feminism is presented as the only frame of reference adequate to understanding and critiquing both the particular crime and the larger social issue, and as the only ideology capable of offering an alternative to the corrupt social system from which the crimes arise. The four authors thus adopt a stance akin to that recently articulated by feminist standpoint theorists: “a standpoint is an engaged vision of the world opposed and superior to dominant ways of thinking. … [A] feminist standpoint is a superior vision produced by the political conditions and distinctive work of women” (Ruddick 129). Feminism, then, is accorded a privileged position in the four narratives. Feminism is the source of each detective's authority and therefore of her power, while each murderer's corrupt definition and destructive use of power is rooted in patriarchal, capitalist ideology, which is seen finally to lack legitimate authority.

Paretsky, Grafton, Cross, and Wilson root their novels in the insights afforded by a feminist standpoint and construct their plots within the framework of a feminist critique of society. Like other feminists, the four authors understand that all knowledge is constructed and contextual, and that all reading is gendered.3 Wilson may assume an almost exclusively feminist readership, given that her detective is a lesbian and her novels are published as trade paperbacks by a small press (Seal) and sold mainly by independent booksellers. Grafton's, Cross's, and Paretsky's novels, however, are published by large commercial houses, first in hardback and then in mass-market paperback editions, and sold both by independents and by the large chains. I doubt that any of the three assumes her entire audience will be feminist. Despite these differences, by writing as feminists and by creating feminist detectives, all four novelists teach their readers to read as feminists, to look on the world—at least temporarily—from a feminist perspective.

Elsewhere, I have argued that Cross and others teach their readers how to read as women, either by focusing on the female detective's thought processes or by taking the reader through a form of consciousness raising (Reddy 12-15). Work by Carol Gilligan, Nancy Chodorow, and Jessica Benjamin suggests that women's socialization, particularly early relations with a mother who acts as primary caretaker, results in an understanding of the self and of the self's relation to others considerably different from men's. Historically, though, male ways of thinking have been dominant in society. Taken together, Gilligan, Chodorow, and Benjamin offer an analysis of gender differences that centers on modes of relatedness, with men tending to define themselves through individuation and separation, valuing autonomy over connections with others, and perceiving relationships in terms of rights and rules, and women tending instead to define themselves in relation to others, valuing interpersonal connections over autonomy, and perceiving relationships in terms of balancing needs.4 Given these characteristic gender differences, one might expect that a woman detective would understand her role quite differently than would a male detective, and that she would have difficulty with traditional notions of truth and justice. These expectations are in fact borne out in feminist crime novels. The four novels I discuss here problematize the conventions of crime fiction, operating as practical applications of feminist standpoint theory.

Feminist crime writers accept few of the givens of traditional detective fiction. By calling into question that which is taken for granted in other crime novels—the value of detecting, the knowability of the truth, the detective's commitment to solving the crime, the reader's interest in deciphering clues and solving the puzzle, the detective's superior authority, the primacy of reason—feminist writers push readers to question their own assumptions about the genre. The detective's motives are always more centrally at issue in feminist crime novels than they are in conventional mysteries. Whereas nonfeminist writers usually assign their detectives some version of the common motive of commitment to order, justice, and truth, feminist crime writers generally problematize both the universality and the desirability of these abstractions. There is no single, universal truth, these writers suggest; rather, truth is always relative, dependent on perspective and on circumstances. Order, for instance, is frequently presented as the source of crimes against women and therefore as the antithesis of real justice. Further, there may often be higher values than abstract truth or justice, such as preserving lives and relationships.5

Consequently, the most commonly used motive for a feminist detective's entering into an investigation is a very personal stake of some sort: the detective detects in order to protect a friend or at the request of a friend. Even those characters who are professional investigators, such as Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski, usually are assigned motives beyond the requirements of the job. In Blood Shot, for instance, V. I. begins the case at the request of an old friend. Only Kinsey Millhone acts strictly as a paid professional; at the beginning of “F” Is for Fugitive a man hires her to clear his son, who has been arrested for a murder committed sixteen years before. At least initially, Kinsey has no connection beyond employer/employee with the family whose lives she enters. In the first two Pam Nilsen novels, Barbara Wilson carefully constructed compelling personal motives for Pam's investigations, but in The Dog Collar Murders the reader is left to puzzle out Pam's motives. Actually, in this book Pam herself isn't sure why she investigates. Her twin sister suggests that Pam should involve herself because “we know for sure the police are going to make a botch-up of the whole thing” (55). Ultimately, Pam's motive seems to be compounded of curiosity, boredom, and desire to divert her thoughts away from problems with her lover. This novel lacks the sense of urgency Wilson artfully creates in the two earlier Nilsen novels; I think a major reason for the calmer, cooler tone of this book is Pam's unconvincing motivation. Both the author and her character seem much more interested in exploring the various feminist positions in the pornography debate than they are in investigating the murder of anti-porn activist Loie Marsh, resulting in a lack of plot balance that seriously undermines the novel.

The detective's authority—indeed, the nature of authority itself—becomes a subject of inquiry in most feminist crime novels. Conventional crime novels treat the (male) detective as the single authority capable of satisfactorily and fully explaining the meaning of events and encourage readers to accept this authority figure's right to define truth. Women's authority is always in question, though, and it is therefore always a struggle for a woman to establish herself as an authority in any area, as authority is popularly associated with masculinity. Grafton alone among these four novelists treats authority as relatively uncomplicated, with her narrator/protagonist presenting authority as a matter of knowing enough to be able to write “the proper ending to the tale” (1) of violent death she is hired to investigate. The wording here—“the proper ending”—suggests some ambiguity, though: “proper” by what standards and in relation to what other possible endings? Most feminist crime writers doubly problematize authority: on the one hand, they question the entire concept of authority, while on the other they assert the female detective's authority. Traditionally, authority—the power to judge, the right to command, the power to persuade based on knowledge or experience—inheres in the masculine role, with that role part of a social structure based on male superiority. From a feminist standpoint, authority based on such a structure is necessarily illegitimate. Feminist crime writers lay bare this illegitimacy and offer different bases of authority, most often an understanding rooted in relatedness, empathy, and care. The feminist detective does not occupy a masculine position; on the contrary, she establishes her authority on entirely different grounds.

The question of authority is broached in A Trap for Fools before the novel proper begins, with the entire text of Rudyard Kipling's “If” serving as epigraph for the book. Although deadly serious in tone, Kipling's poem—from which the novel's title also derives—is transformed into bitter irony through its context: it is impossible to encounter this poem between the covers of a feminist crime novel and read it “straight,” which requires reading it as a man. The poem consists of a series of conditions, beginning with “If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,” all of which share a single conclusion: “Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it, / And—which is more—you'll be a Man, my son!” Cross's novel undercuts both the poem's construction of gender and its conventionally gendered notion of authority. The novel suggests that Kipling mistook a condition for a conclusion: if you are a man (more accurately, a white man), then “Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it.” Kate Fansler does meet most of the poem's conditions, but she can never “be a Man,” and therefore “the Earth and everything that's in it” cannot be hers. At novel's end, Kate does get some power in the world, but she does so only by forfeiting legitimate feminist authority.

Power, in fact, is one reason that Kate agrees to become involved in the murder investigation in A Trap for Fools. Asked by the administrators of her university to investigate the murder of a widely detested professor, Kate at first refuses. The lone woman administrator, Edna Hoskins, persuades Kate to change her answer by offering to share information and therefore power with her: “my colleagues feel that to give away information is to give away power; I believe in an institution where shared information leads to shared power and responsibility” (10). The first bit of power/information Edna offers is the fact that the police suspect a friend of Kate's, a black professor named Humphrey Edgerton. Kate pushes on with the investigation in order to clear her friend—a familiar motive—but also to learn how the university really works, which by the administrators’ definition means acquiring power. Cross gives Kate another reason to pursue the case when a student Kate likes becomes the murderer's second victim. Earlier in the novel, Kate thinks that “it was easier to seek wholeheartedly the murderer of someone you have liked, someone whose loss is evident, a general diminution of the humane” (19); seeking Arabella's killer is in that sense easier than seeking Professor Adams', although, as it happens, the same person committed both crimes.

The criminals in three novels hold powerful positions in institutions that oppress women: a fundamentalist church; a prestigious university, government, organized crime, and big business (with these last three portrayed as very nearly identical). The authors demonstrate that their crimes are neither aberrational nor violations of order, but extreme expressions of the institutions’ values, logical outgrowths of an order built on the oppression of women. The criminals share, indeed act upon, the true values of the institutions they represent; Cross, Paretsky, and Wilson show that these values—money and power over others’ lives—are dangerous to women and to other living things. Paretsky most graphically represents the interrelationship of social institutions, including the family, in a corrupt system of power, first by creating a conspiracy among representatives of business, government, and organized crime, and then by revealing one man to be a child molester, an abusive father and husband, a dishonest businessman, and a corrupt city father. This character, Art Jurshak, symbolizes patriarchy itself.

Just as the criminals in these novels may be used as representatives of the institutions of which they are a part and as figures for patriarchal capitalism in general, so too their victims serve symbolic functions as well. In The Dog Collar Murders, the victims, Loie and Nicky, are lesbian feminists who refuse to maintain silence about their experience and who insist on the authority of that experience. The victims in Blood Shot are Nancy, who works for a non-profit neighborhood environmental agency, and Louisa, who has been doubly victimized, first by sexual abuse and then by industrial pollution. While the murdered Nancy represents women who directly threaten masculine control, the slowly dying Louisa represents both silent female victims of abuse and workers, both male and female, who lack control over their working conditions and who involuntarily sacrifice their lives for the sake of corporate profit.

Cross's victims in A Trap for Fools fall into two distinct categories: an utterly unsympathetic white male professor and a far more sympathetic black woman student. Both, however, collude in their own victimization by attempting to gain power through blackmail, Professor Adams for the “wrong” reasons (personal power over others and personal financial gain) and Arabella Jordan for the “right” ones (greater political power for minority students). The victims’ motives thus are interestingly gendered, but their common fate suggests that accepting the traditional basis of power—secret knowledge—necessarily destroys, regardless of motive. Cross's criminals have similarly gendered motives: Vice-President Noble embezzles and then kills in order to amass power in the university, while Edna accepts money in exchange for silence in order to help her ailing husband. Cross suggests that Edna's and Arabella's motives are less reprehensible than Adams’ and Noble's, but portrays their actions as both self-destructive and destructive to their communities.

Cross's Edna is a victim of the misogynistic organization of power in the university for which she works. At several points in A Trap for Fools, we are reminded of Edna's isolation in an otherwise exclusively masculine administration. In earlier Kate Fansler novels and in her scholarly work, Cross/Heilbrun has emphasized the importance of women's entering male-dominated institutions in large numbers if they are to avoid being “co-opted as honorary members of a male club” (Heilbrun 32).6 Edna's isolation ultimately leads her to act in a way contrary both to her original feminist principles and to her own best interest: she is co-opted into a male club in which money, power, and secrecy are highly valued.

Grafton's criminal is also a victim: a daughter in a family that, like the wider society, most values sons and a plain woman in a world in which pleasing men is the crucial test of femininity and the surest road to social success. Ann kills three people (all women), sets up the murder of a fourth, and allows her brother to go to prison for a crime she committed, all so that she can possess the man she desires. “F” Is for Fugitive suggests that being an unrewarded good daughter and an ordinary “old maid” literally made Ann crazy. By accepting dominant social values instead of recognizing their falseness and repudiating them, Ann colludes in her own victimization, with this collusion graphically represented at the novel's end when Ann, struggling with her father for a gun, actually shoots off her own foot. Ann blames her father for her crimes—“You were never there for me … you were never there,” she sobs to him—and Kinsey accepts this analysis, linking Ann to other women in the novel's last few lines. She mentions several women, and then says:

None of us had survived the wounds our fathers inflicted all those years ago. Did he love us? How would we ever know? He was gone and he'd never again be what he was to us in all his haunting perfection. If love is what injures us, how can we heal?


The novel implies an answer to its own final question through the striking differences between Ann and Kinsey, particularly Kinsey's rejection of the anti-feminist values Ann accepts.

At some level, crime novels are always about secrets, about uncovering what is at first hidden, but secrecy itself becomes a central theme in The Dog Collar Murders,A Trap for Fools, and Blood Shot. The murderers in these novels act to preserve secrets, with those secrets always about sex and/or money: Wilson's Sonya kills in order to shield her past participation in porn films from public knowledge, as disclosure of her secret would threaten her livelihood as a Christian activist and speaker. Cross's ironically named Noble kills when he fears that his embezzlement of university funds will be made public. Paretsky's Jurshak, Dresberg, and Humboldt arrange and carry out one murder and plan several others in order to keep their insurance fraud secret, with Jurshak having the additional motive of hiding his past sexual abuse of his niece. The three novelists further suggest that secrecy is crucial for business-as-usual to be carried on in most institutions. Keeping silent, then, supports these institutions and, directly or indirectly, destroys women. This analysis is clearest in A Trap for Fools, in which Arabella becomes the murderer's second victim when she keeps his secret. The three novels offer insights similar to Adrienne Rich's in “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying,” and testify to the importance of breaking silence in altering the corrupt power base of the patriarchal order. Rich points out that “lying is done with words, and also with silence”: “Patriarchal lying has manipulated women both through falsehood and through silence. Facts we needed have been withheld from us. False witness has been borne against us” (186, 189).

The theme of silence and secrecy aiding corruption and opposing women's best interests works itself out in different ways in these novels, but is most complexly rendered in Blood Shot, where family silence about Art Jurshak's rape of Louisa is the enabling condition for his rise to power and his abuse of that power. Jurshak's entire life is built on lies, secrets, and silence. Like virtually all feminist crime novels—including “F” Is for Fugitive, in which Ann's crimes result from her acceptance of traditional ideas about women—these three link individual crimes to a wider social context, particularly to important feminist issues. As the detective investigates the crime, she also investigates the larger issue. In The Dog Collar Murders, the victims are women on either side of the pornography debate, a lesbian-feminist anti-porn activist and a lesbian-feminist S/M advocate. Pam, who as the novel opens hasn't thought much about the porn issue and is unsure of her own position, gets caught up in the debate. In A Trap for Fools, the central social issue, apart from the general theme of academe as corrupt, is racism, especially relations among white and black women. Cross here focuses on what has become in many ways the feminist issue: if feminism is to survive as a movement, white women and women of color must find common ground in order to work together on issues of mutual concern, yet the barriers to a cross-racial sisterhood are enormous and may sometimes appear insurmountable.7 Paretsky's Blood Shot foregrounds the issue of child sexual abuse, linking it with the problem of industrial pollution and effectively showing how precisely the same forces are responsible for both.

Although the connection between the particular crime on which the plot turns and the larger social issue with which the novel deals may seem most tenuous in Blood Shot, the novel actually quite successfully integrates the criminal investigation and the analysis of the larger social issue. Wilson, in contrast, runs into difficulties that Paretsky gracefully avoids. The major problems in Wilson's The Dog Collar Murders arise, ironically enough, from a virtue: the author's determination to render the pornography issue in feminism in its real complexity and ambiguity. Unfortunately, Wilson is not able to discover a dramatically satisfying way to conduct this exploration; further, it is difficult for readers to care deeply about Loie's demise when the detective herself seems detached, unaffected. Finally, the solution to the case—the answer to who killed Loie and later Nicky, and why—turns out not to depend on any of the subtleties of the porn wars, a fact which is liable to leave the reader wondering whether wading through multiple pages of exposition was necessary at all.

Roughly thirty pages of The Dog Collar Murders (chapters 3-5) are given over to reportage of a sexuality conference, with this material evidently intended to provide a framework for Pam's investigation. The experience of reading this section of the novel too often feels like attending an actual conference, especially because Wilson invents two fairly lengthy speeches, one examining why porn has become such a central issue among feminists and the other, by Loie, advocating censorship of porn. Neither speech is especially dynamic, nor does this section offer truly fresh insights into either the anti-pornography movement itself or porn's position as a major feminist issue. Loie turns up dead at the end of this section, and it later develops that an important clue to why she was murdered is embedded in her speech; nevertheless, the conference report, placed as it is quite early in the book, derails the novel, which never gets all the way back on track.

The murderer in The Dog Collar Murders turns out to be Sonya, a right-wing Christian anti-porn activist who killed Loie and Nicky to avoid public disclosure of her youthful participation in porn films. In a pattern used by other feminist crime writers who create female criminals, the murderer is a male-identified woman who acts on masculine motives (Reddy 31-32, 35-36). Wilson concludes the crime narrative of The Dog Collar Murders in a highly conventional way: Pam does not figure out the murderer's identity, instead narrowing the suspects down to a short list and then inviting all of them to a gathering at which she intends the murderer will be revealed. Sonya upsets Pam's plan by turning up early and endangering Pam's life. Ultimately, the police arrive and arrest Sonya, hauling her off for what we must assume will be trial and punishment. There's nothing especially feminist about this denouement. Even the conventions that other feminist crime novels, including Wilson's own first two, employ only to turn on their heads—the detective's failure to solve the puzzle and the threat to the detective's life, for instance—are used more straightforwardly here.

Wilson has Pam plan the meeting in a spirit of parody—as narrator, Pam asks, “If Hercule Poirot could carry it off, why couldn't I?” (184)—but the novel, as distinct from the character's thoughts and actions, does not parody the convention. Pam cannot “carry it off” because she is not all-knowing, not the single voice of authority Poirot is. After she has planned the meeting, Pam tells another character that were she ever to write a book, it “would be full of dead ends, tentative conclusions, backpedaling, outright wrong assumptions. I no sooner have one idea than another sounds better” (187). This is a fair description of Pam's investigative techniques, but also of Wilson's narrative technique in Murder in the Collective and Sisters of the Road; in fact, Pam's tolerance of ambiguity and Wilson's refusal to make her detective in the image of masculine authority figures contributes to the freshness of those novels. The Dog Collar Murders, however, founders at the end by removing all of Pam's authority and power.

Perhaps, though, that is part of a deliberate strategy, as surely is Wilson's decision to impair Pam's ability to fight back by burdening her with a baby, her three-month-old niece. Just as the murderer advances on her, Pam thinks, “We'd never discussed what to do in my self-defense class if you happened to have a thirteen-week-old baby on your hands” (191). However, women do often have children on their hands, and responsibility for children's safety certainly often impedes women's ability to defend themselves, both literally and metaphorically. Pam tries to escape, but then fights when she has no other choice, gaining strength from her determination to protect her niece: “suddenly my fear passed and I felt terribly angry. No one was going to hurt Antonia if I could help it” (193). Two women chance upon the fight and intercede, helping Pam.

Paretsky, Grafton, and Cross also endanger their detectives, but their handling of that motif differs considerably from Wilson's in The Dog Collar Murders. Cross has Kate brazen out a threat and just walk away, counting on the killer's cowardice and on a male ally's bravery to protect her. As in earlier Kinsey Millhone novels, Grafton portrays Kinsey as at ease with guns and reliant on a gun to equalize power between criminal and detective. At one point in “F” Is for Fugitive. Kinsey picks up her gun, “loving the smooth, cold weight of it” (193). However, Kinsey very seldom uses her gun in the series and, when she does, the gun sometimes proves ineffectual. In “E” Is for Evidence, for instance, Kinsey's purse and a toilet tank lid are better weapons against an attacker than is her gun. When Kinsey is threatened by Ann in “F” Is for Fugitive, she is taken by surprise and cannot get to her gun, instead using words to forestall Ann's attack. Although we see Kinsey physically fight off one attacker in “F” Is for Fugitive, this novel is far less violent than is Paretsky's Blood Shot. True to the hardboiled part of her ancestry, Paretsky's Warshawski gets beaten, kidnapped and left for dead by thugs, attacked by a gunwielding gangster, and threatened by a billionaire businessman. She fights off the thugs and survives their attack by using her wits, shoots the gangster, and calls the businessman's bluff. Paretsky's portrayal of violence implicitly questions the role of violence in hardboiled novels. Male hardboiled detectives may express distaste for violence, but their creators use violence to underscore the detective's masculinity. In Blood Shot, as in her earlier novels, Paretsky shows that violence is neither fixed in meaning nor an indication of masculinity. V. I. certainly cannot prove her femininity through violence, nor does violence establish her as masculine. Further, violence is always her last choice, and is frequently less effective than other forms of resistance. V. I. uses violence only when no other strategy will preserve her own or another character's life.

While the criminals in these novels generally act to acquire and then to preserve power as conventionally defined, the detectives usually act to protect relationships. Indeed, the primary shared value encoded by these texts is a form of preservative love,8 and the detectives’ morality consistently places concern for relationships ahead of such abstractions as order and justice. At the end of Blood Shot, V. I. rejects a businessman's attempt to buy her silence not simply on the grounds that assent would be morally wrong according to a hard and fast code, but because it would damage others she loves. Instead of abrogating to herself the authority to speak for others and to determine what is right for them, V. I. allows her friend Lotty to participate in the decision. Briefly, the situation is that Humboldt trumps up a charge of medical malpractice via sexual abuse against Lotty, offering to have the charges dropped and to give V. I. a substantial sum of money if she will give him the notebooks that contain evidence of his company's wrongdoing. V. I. contacts Lotty, explains the situation, and allows Lotty to speak for herself—acknowledges, in other words, Lotty's right to control her own life and to assert her own authority.

Relationships, familial and otherwise, are an important theme in feminist crime novels. Feminist crime writers depict their detectives’ struggles to create new forms of relatedness outside the boundaries of patriarchal nuclear families, a striking departure from the solitariness of male hardboiled detectives. The detectives seek deep and lasting connections while remaining wary of falling into roles that replicate conventional feminine family positions: daughter, sister, wife, mother, all defined primarily in relation to men, especially husband/father. Grafton's Kinsey enjoys being alone, but she also has several ongoing friendships, most notably one with her elderly landlord, Henry Pitts. At the end of “E” Is for Evidence (1988), Kinsey's apartment is destroyed by a bomb; as “F” Is for Fugitive begins, she is staying in a room of Henry's house and beginning to feel some “emotional claustrophobia” (11). In earlier books Kinsey has worried that Henry may want to play a fatherly role toward her, but in this more recent novel she has a sudden flash of insight that Henry actually wants to mother her. As the rest of the novel suggests, mothering is surely less damaging than fathering and may provide a comparatively benign model of relatedness, particularly if it is non-traditional mothering, outside patriarchal control. Wilson's The Dog Collar Murders opens with Pam directly addressing the issue of feminist relationships. We see her discomfort and downright anger with her sister's decision to marry, as this legalizing of a relationship is denied lesbians, including Pam. During the course of the novel, Pam tries to figure out what form she wants her relationship with her lover Hadley to take, determined to avoid simply replicating heterosexual conventions. Similarly, Paretsky's V. I. grapples with the question of what she truly owes her own friends and her mother's friends, and how she can reconcile her need for independence with her equal need for interdependence. At one point in Blood Shot, Lotty tells V. I. that she has been behaving irresponsibly, insisting on a degree of independence that threatens their friendship: “You involved me in your problems, and then you disappeared without a word. That isn't independence—that is thoughtless cruelty. … [If] you want to be friends, you cannot behave with such callous disregard for my feelings for you” (220-21). V. I. accepts Lotty's criticism, realizing that not all expressions of need are necessarily diminutions of her independence and that not all forms of dependence threaten the self. Ms. Chigwell, an older woman who has always accepted the notion that women's loyalties must lie with their fathers, husbands, or brothers, is inspired by V. I.'s example to shake free of her demanding brother and to begin, belatedly, her own life.

Although Cross asserts through Kate that women's friendships are of the greatest importance and demonstrates through Edna that the absence of such friendships may be deeply destructive, she fails to portray these friendships with any convincing degree of complexity or intensity. While Paretsky and Wilson both invent important women friends for their detectives, with several of these friendships carried throughout their series, the only ongoing intimate relationship Cross invents for Kate is with Reed Amhearst, her husband. In each of her recent novels, most notably No Word from Winifred (1986), Cross creates at least one supposedly intense and satisfying friendship between Kate and another woman, but none of these friends turns up in any other Cross novel. These friendships have no history and no future; therefore, the various comments in Cross's novels on the centrality of women's friendships in Kate's life have a hollow sound. Cross keeps claiming that such friendships are valuable, but never shows that they are. In A Trap for Fools, for instance, Kate spends a day with a novelist, Penelope Constable, at the end of which they feel “a sense of having known each other forever”:

They had covered every topic from contemporary fiction through the new opportunities of women's friendships and the perhaps concomitant greater impatience of women with stilted men, ending up with the state of England's economy and the extent to which it resembled the two nations of Disraeli's time.


This sense of closeness and community is temporary; Kate and Penelope share not a friendship, nor even the beginning of a friendship, but a day out of time, essentially separate from the rest of their lives.

Cross also depicts Kate as concerned about the distance between black and white women, their mutual mistrust, but this concern largely takes the form of an aggrieved belief that she has been misjudged. Outrageously, Kate blames black women as a group for making her uncomfortable. Regretting that “she had no black woman friend as close as Humphrey,” Kate thinks, “These women seemed to have condemned her in advance to an eliteness that her presence, apart from her actions, seemed inevitably to bespeak” (92). Kate's position, sadly, is one too widely shared by white feminists (see Lorde 124-33), but Cross presents it uncritically. The lack of irony in this passage suggests that Cross herself believe Kate's attitude to be reasonable, instead of recognizing it as a problem.

This blind spot regarding black and white women's relationships extends to most relationships among women, of whatever race, in Cross's novels. At midpoint in A Trap for Fools, Kate expresses love for Edna: “what she felt for Edna was certainly love; it was friendship, and devotion, and collegiality, but it was also love” (85). At the end of the novel, though, we learn that Edna has betrayed Kate, that at the very moment Kate was realizing she loved Edna, Edna was playing Kate for a fool. Because Edna is the only woman in the novel with whom Kate has an ongoing relationship, this betrayal acquires symbolic significance. Ultimately, Kate can depend only on men; the racist male security guard turns out to be a better ally than any woman. A Trap for Fools suggests that all women's friendships are ephemeral at best, sometimes even dangerous, in any case not to be relied upon, an impression I assume Cross did not set out to create and one that undercuts the explicit assertions about friendship in the novel.

Feminism serves the double function of standpoint and theme in all four of these novels, with three of the authors interested in the diversity of feminism. Feminism is a more muted theme in Grafton's novel, where it provides an alternative to the destructive, masculinist values the novel more directly explores. One theme running through A Trap for Fools is feminism's failure to unite black and white women. In The Dog Collar Murders, Wilson examines other divisions among feminists, asking a series of interrelated questions: what, exactly, do women owe each other? should all feminists refuse to participate in social institutions that bar some of our sisters? to what issues should the feminist movement give its attention? is feminism still viable as a movement, or has it broken down irretrievably into numerous factions? Paretsky's Blood Shot asks similar questions, focusing most directly on what women's responsibilities to each other comprise. None of these authors, or their characters, can fully answer the questions they raise, except in the most tentative, temporary ways, but answering the questions “properly” is beside the point: the important thing is to ask the questions, to encourage readers to think about them.

The authors’ interest in asking questions and their willingness to entertain multiple possible answers contribute to the three novels’ openendedness, their refusal of conventional closure. The simpler puzzle of the murder mystery—who did what to whom and why—gets solved in A Trap for Fools,“F” Is for Fugitive,The Dog Collar Murders, and Blood Shot, but the deeper mysteries and the larger questions remain open. The detectives end one or several criminal careers, but the larger social problems the crimes represent are not solved: order is not restored, justice is only minimally served, truth continues to be elusive. Of the three, A Trap for Fools ends most disturbingly, with Kate using the tactics of the oppressors to obtain reparations for the oppressed. She tells her provost that she has “learned a certain amount about blackmail” (153) from her investigation, and then proceeds to blackmail him: in exchange for her cooperation (silence) in keeping the story of embezzling out of the papers, Kate demands that the university establish three large scholarships for poor students in the name of the murdered black student, Arabella. Through exerting this illegitimate form of power, Kate loses her legitimate power. In the final chapter, Kate ceases to speak and to act with feminist authority, abandoning a feminist standpoint and operating instead within the system of power the novel has shown to be corrupt. Like Arabella before her, Kate acts for the “right” reasons, yet can only lose. In another sense, though, Kate wins: she does succeed in making the institution a tiny bit more responsive to the needs of those it usually excludes. Cross implies that all change must take place within existing institutions, and must therefore be incremental; she offers not a vision of revolution, but a realistic description of evolution.

The final full chapter of “F” Is for Fugitive ends, as I have shown, with a question already answered by the novel. However, Grafton also appends an epilogue in the form of a summary report of the case. This epilogue ends with a comment on her relationship with Henry, her motherly landlord:

I find that I'm looking at Henry Pitts differently these days. He may be the closest thing to a father I'll ever have. Instead of viewing him with suspicion, I think I'll enjoy him for the time we have left, whatever that may be.


The “closest thing to a father” Kinsey has, then, is a male surrogate mother. This conclusion underscores the importance of reinventing relationships, of finding forms of relatedness that avoid the dangerous potentialities of traditional roles.

Both Blood Shot and The Dog Collar Murders end hopefully, in parodies of familiar rituals. Traditionally, women's novels end in the heroine's marriage (or death), while crime novels end in the restoration of order. Paretsky and Wilson revise both genres, “writing beyond the ending” of both romance and crime.9 In the last chapter of Blood Shot, V. I. and Caroline, her surrogate little sister, finally manage to achieve an adult understanding. Caroline says that she hopes V. I. will always be her sister, and V. I.'s reply constitutes the book's final line: “Till death do us part, kid” (328). This parody of the marriage service and of hardboiled language (“kid”) resonates deeply, underscoring the novel's theme of women's friendships: sisterhood indeed provides a better, more egalitarian model of relatedness than does marriage, not to mention more freedom for women. This promise of sisterhood does not give the sense of finality, of closure and enclosure, found in novels that end in marriage. Wilson uses a similar tactic in the final pages of The Dog Collar Murders, which describe a “houses-warming” Pam and Hadley give. After deciding to abandon all existing models for relationships and to use instead their own needs as a guide, they buy a duplex that will allow them to live both separately and together. Wilson points the link between the wedding of her first chapter and the houses-warming of her last through Hadley's remark that “this is the nearest we'll get to a wedding.” Pam agrees, thinking

It was a little bit like the wedding reception two months ago. Not as many old neighbors and relatives, but more of the people we counted as friends and family.


This “houses-warming” revises the traditional ritual of the wedding in a way that parallels these writers’ revision of the conventions of crime fiction: both are counter-traditions, suited to feminist stories and feminist lives.


  1. There has, of course, always been a feminist movement in this century; the dates and texts I cite here are important in terms of popular notice of this movement.

  2. Throughout this essay I am building upon the arguments I made first, in more detailed fashion, in Sisters in Crime; for details on the counter-tradition, see 2-17 and 148-49.

  3. For analysis of women's characteristic ways of thinking, see Mary Belenky et al.

  4. Here I am offering a necessarily sharply abbreviated and greatly simplified version of the highly complex psychoanalytical arguments presented by Benjamin. Chodorow, and Gilligan.

  5. Cross, Grafton, Paretsky, and Wilson thus write in the “different voice” Carol Gilligan has found typical of women's moral decision making.

  6. See also Cross's Death in a Tenured Position (1982), in which a woman's isolation among men leads to her suicide.

  7. Numerous feminists, especially black feminists, have written on this problem; for a good introduction to the issue see Dill.

  8. I am indebted to Sara Ruddick for both term and concept.

  9. I have taken this phrase from Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ wonderful book, Writing Beyond the Ending.

Principal Works

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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

Dick Lochte (review date 10 May 1992)

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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 weighs heavily on my mind.”

In her newest satisfying search for truth and justice, ‘I’ Is for Innocent, Kinsey is as candid, observant, funny, loyal and determined as ever. But the intervening years have wrought some changes—in her universe and in the real world, where the mystery field has become so overrun with women private eyes one can only marvel at the ingenuity of the authors and the tolerance of readers that keep them all gainfully employed.

Grafton was not the first woman writer to send a female into the former boys’ club of private eyedom. In the early 1970s, P. D. James presented London's Cordelia Gray in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, and later that same decade, Marcia Muller gave us San Francisco sleuth Sharon McCone in Edwin of the Iron Shoes. But Grafton did create a character who, over the course of eight novels, has developed into one of the most popular of fiction's gumshoes.

Developed is the key word. Though she hasn't aged very much—she's still in her early 30s—she's less brash, less rash and, following the lead of both Chandler's Philip Marlowe and Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer, she has slowed down what was once the fastest mouth in the West.

Grafton's earlier books used the same pattern as did those of Chandler and Macdonald, with the detective solving the crime by moving from one character to another until all the clues fall into place. Lately, however, she's made an apparently conscious effort to vary Millhone's equations.

Though her novels continue to be who-done-its, involving domestic violence, Kinsey's last job, ‘H’ Is for Homicide, in which she went undercover to get information on a murderous Chicano hoodlum, contained more action and adventure than detection. Prior to that, ‘G’ Is for Gumshoe featured a mysterious hit man who placed the detective in jeopardy for nearly all of the novel, with self-preservation shoving the sleuthing into second position.

[‘I’ Is for Innocent] marks the detective's return to a more conventional PI case, which should be satisfying to the purists. Fortunately, there are enough unconventional trappings and diversions to satisfy everyone else.

Four alphabet letters back, in ‘F’ Is for Fugitive, Kinsey was hired to prove the innocence of a young man convicted of murder. Here, she's asked to prove the guilt of a man declared innocent. David Barney has been tried and acquitted of the shooting death of his architect wife. But a number of people, including Kinsey's client, the victim's former husband, think justice's blindfold was on a bit too tight. The ex-spouse has brought a wrongful-death civil suit against Barney that, if successful, would not only discredit him but take away the fortune he inherited as a result of his wife's death.

It's Kinsey's job to provide her client's lawyer with supporting evidence, but when Barney offers her seemingly irrefutable proof of his innocence, she's stuck with the disturbing notion that somebody else murdered the woman. The list of suspects includes the victim's bitter twin sister, her passive (and aggressive?) former partner, his tart-tongued wife and, of course, Kinsey's client.

From time to time, Grafton interrupts the presentation of this clever, complex puzzle with a secondary plot in which Kinsey's gentlemanly, octogenarian landlord, Henry Pitts, is being driven crazy by an open-ended visit from his ultra-fastidious older brother. This humorous diversion, though obviously less lethal and compelling than the main plot, sets Kinsey apart from the private detectives of Hammett and Chandler, and thereby provides a clue to her popularity. Those earlier detectives weren't just male, they were invincible males, impervious to booze and beatings and unconcerned with the daily affairs of their fellow human beings. And they were loath to discuss their private lives in print.

Kinsey's personal history intertwines with her narratives. Friends die; romances begin and end; her prized VW Beetle is pulverized. In Innocent, she's suffering the aftermath of the abrupt termination of a longtime business association with an insurance company. These are things we can all relate to. In refusing to limit her heroine to just the case at hand, Grafton has moved the private eye story closer to real life than did either Hammett or Chandler, for all their talk about realism.

As has been noted, the author and her irrepressible heroine have made it possible for women writers to explore (and possibly take over) the hard-boiled detective arena. More important, she has breathed new life into the nearly moribund sub-genre, allowing fictional creations of every gender, nationality, sexual preference or political agenda to continue to sleuth down mean streets in the pursuit of crime.

Further Reading

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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 1997): 316-22.

Schaffer discusses Grafton's use of humor through her detective character P.I. Kinsey Millhone.

Shuker-Haines, Timothy, and Martha M. Umphrey. “Gender (De)Mystified: Resistance and Recuperation in Hard-Boiled Female Detective Fiction.” In The Detective in American Fiction, Film, and Television, edited by Jerome H. Delamater and Ruth Prigozy, pp. 71-82. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Shuker-Haines and Umphrey discuss the female hard-boiled detective and the inherent gender issues associated with these fictional characters.

Additional coverage of Grafton's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 11; Bestsellers, Vol. 90:3; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 108; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 31, 55; Contemporary Popular Writers; Contemporary Southern Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 226; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors Modules: Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; Feminist Writers; Literature Resource Center; Mystery and Suspense Writers; and St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers, Vol. 4.

Richard Lipez (review date 16 May 1993)

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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, mildly neurotic, good humored woman in a treacherous business. 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. She has a nice way, too, of drolly appraising the characters she meets in her work without ever trivializing people's suffering, or their crimes. She knows what's important.

In “J” Is for Judgment Millhone is hired by California Fidelity to check out an apparent insurance scam. Wendell Jaffe, presumed dead at sea, is spotted in a resort hotel down in Baja. Supposedly, he committed suicide by jumping off his yacht five years earlier after his multi-million-dollar Ponzi scheme collapsed, ruining dozens of investors. But his widow Dana has just been paid off big by California Fidelity, and then there's the question of where all the investors’ millions went.

Millhone is conventionally competent in the way she uses real investigator's techniques—trading dope with police contacts (including a couple of ex-lovers), following paper trails, enduring wearisome stakeouts. But she'll try Nancy Drew-style sneaking around too, and some of this is delightfully farcical. After spotting Jaffe and a female companion down in Viento Negro (“Black Sand”), Millhone is nearly caught searching his hotel room. She escapes by the skin of her teeth onto an adjoining balcony, where she's suddenly confronted by an elderly drunk smoking a cigarette. Thinking fast, not wanting to cause a ruckus and alert Jaffe, she blurts out, “Hi, stud. How are you? You're lookin’ good tonight.” And so on. It's even funnier when this poor schmo later turns up, all too plausibly, back in California.

One of the saddest characters here is Dana Jaffe. She was once a stylish woman of restless leisure, whose world dropped from under her when her husband disappeared. Instantly penniless, she was forced to make a career planning fancy weddings while she raised two teenaged sons. One of them is now wanted for murder and the other is a dweeby ne'er-do-well married to a whiny teen mother whose chief interest in life, a little ahead even of her infant son, is day-time TV talk shows.

Millhone is stymied in various ways by the Jaffes. The family's such a mess it's hard to sort out. Although Millhone does envy Dana Jaffe in one respect. Dana Jaffe's outfit of “tight, faded jeans and a plain white T-shirt, tennis shoes without socks” had “a careless elegance” on her. Says Millhone, “When I wear the same outfit, it looks like I'm all set to change the oil in my car.”

“J” Is for Judgment is not only about the Jaffe's lemon of a family, but Millhone's too. During the course of her investigation Millhone discovers she has relatives she didn't know she had. Orphaned at age 5 and raised by an aunt, now long dead, Millhone isn't sure she wants to meet the grandmother who, it develops, rejected Millhone's mother at a critical turn in her life. Anyway, she muses, “I never had a family. What would I do with one?” Her choices are tough, and Millhone's profession hasn't left her with the rosiest of pictures of family life. She pushes on, though, with grit and humor, expertly—and entertainingly—answering California Fidelity's questions, if not all of her own.

Patricia Craig (review date 3 September 1993)

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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 suitable course of action: “I pulled out my shirttail and peeled off my blouse like a stripper.” The man is clearly the natural proper recipient for erotic overtures: “He looked like somebody's nice, short, fat granddaddy.” However, it doesn't do to go by appearances, as Kinsey well knows. She is in the town of Viento Negro, in Mexico—so called in acknowledgement of the blizzard of dark lava soot that swirls up from the beach each afternoon—on the trail of a large-scale swindler, a supposed suicide, who seems to have returned from the deeps. The name of this person is Wendell Jaffe.

Jaffe's deserted family—a wife and two sons—have various reasons for wanting, or not wanting, to hear the rumours of his resurrection. And what of his former business partner, and the fraud detective originally assigned to the case, not to mention a formidable woman named Renata Huff? All these have powerful axes to grind, and Kinsey needs to keep out of range of the resulting affairs. It's a heady occupation she's chosen for herself, indeed, one enabling her to carry a gun tucked into the back of her jeans, and go about amazing tow-truck drivers with the extent of her sang froid in the face of breakdowns and bullet holes. It's all exhilarating stuff, and the telling reflects the heroine's embodiment of efficiency, self-sufficiency and the minimum of fuss.

Peter J. Rabinowitz (essay date 1993)

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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 course, I was just rationalizing my own inclination to hold back. … Was I really just sidestepping intimacy? Did I long to relegate him to the role of “possible suspect” in order to justify my own reluctance to take a risk?

—Sue Grafton, “A” Is for Alibi


In “A” Is for Alibi, the first in Sue Grafton's alphabetical series, detective Kinsey Millhone's landlord, Henry Pitts, offers her a preview of his newly composed crossword puzzle, one built on doubles: “‘Prefixes—“bi,” “di,” “bis,” “dis.” Twin. Twain. Binary. Things like that.’” For instance, “‘“Double meaning.” Nine letters. … “Ambiguity.”’”1 Given the novel's self-consciousness, it's no surprise that the puzzle in the novel turns out to mirror the puzzle of the novel, a novel that stars a twice-divorced detective, hired to expose the killer of the slimy but sexually magnetic twice-married lawyer Laurence Fife—the second wife, Nikki, falsely convicted of his murder; the first wife, Gwen, in fact guilty. (Indeed, Gwen wishes she could double her crime: “‘Killing him once just wasn't enough. I wish I could kill him again’” [p. 188]). Laurence is himself doubled by a second villain, his slimy but sexually magnetic partner, Charlie Scorsoni. And in her search, Kinsey gets some help from Garry (the double R stressed in the text [p. 83]) Steinberg, who works for a firm that should have the double name “McNiece and McNiece” (p. 84), and who is himself an amiable double of Charlie (weight loss is similarly central to their current identities, and they once shared an interest—although for profoundly different reasons—in the same woman). Not coincidentally, it's while laboring over Pitts's puzzle, having worked out such words as “disloyal” and “two-faced” (p. 180), that Kinsey suddenly sees through the mystery and realizes that the murdered accountant Elizabeth—appropriately surnamed Glass—is mirrored by another Elizabeth. This leads in turn to her discovery that what appears to be a single plot strand is, in fact, a double series of imitative murders. The novel is formally double as well, for it has a double ending, a dramatic confrontation in which Kinsey dispatches the villain with the climactic line “I blew him away” (p. 214), and—on a separate page, in different typography—a brief and reflective Chandlerian coda, where she recognizes her solitude and the fact that she can trust no one but herself.2

In the spirit of that puzzle within a puzzle, I'm going to offer a double reading of Grafton's dead-serious generic playfulness, two ways of viewing the novel as an answer to a single broad question: To what extent are generic narrative patterns a prison house that confines the scope of women's action? Specifically, I want to stake out the intersection between convention and transgression with an eye toward discovering how far Grafton has in fact succeeded in resisting the traditions she is playing with, and what this can tell us about genre more generally.

My point, following Henry Pitts, is that there are two answers, depending on how you conceptualize convention. My essay is thus split: the first half, a reading of liberation, traces the ways in which Grafton uses (abuses?) hard-boiled traditions to provide a space for female transgression; the second, a reading of liability, shadows the ways in which narrative structure continues to assert power over both author and character. Of course, there's problem in presenting two readings in a linear essay; for whichever reading gets the final position is apt to be privileged by the audience. But then, detective stories, as a genre, have a similar way of devouring multiplicity, of fusing alternatives into single solutions. So if my essay offers up a double interpretation only to end up taking one away, at least it respects the spirit of its subject. And it respects the power of its subject as well: for part of my point is that the resilience of genre, its resistance to revisions, may hide out in places where authors have little control.


On the most immediate level, Alibi is a refreshingly liberated, “feminist” text, in the limited sense that the author declares herself “a feminist from way back”3 and her narrator openly espouses mainstream feminist positions. Kinsey is a woman who's “never been good at taking shit, especially from men” (p. 174); she steadfastly refuses to flirt (p. 10), even when flirting is the fastest way to get ahead; and she engages in a profession that lets her break out of traditional roles. As B. Ruby Rich puts it, “Being a gumshoe gives a girl the right, like a passport, to cross borders previously closed, to unfix definitions, to ramble through society with a mobility long considered exclusively masculine.”4 More significant, Alibi generates much of its emotional power through sympathetic narratives of the ways in which women are brutalized by men—for instance, its account of how Gwen learned that being a “good wife” to Laurence meant transforming herself into a Barbie doll (p. 31), and how that experience ultimately evolved into homicidal impulses. Then too, not only in the world within the novel, but in the very act of writing the novel, Grafton—with such colleagues as P. D. James, Sara Paretsky, and Marcia Muller—strikes a blow for women; for by writing in the hard-boiled tradition, rather than the more genteel classical tradition favored by most earlier women detective novelists, she stakes out a claim on a formerly male preserve. Grafton, as she herself puts it, likes “playing hardball with the boys”;5 and it's no accident that the novel is dedicated to her father, Chip Grafton, himself a practitioner of the hard-boiled art.6

But Alibi is brazenly transgressive on a deeper level too. Granted, some critics have questioned Millhone's success in Alibi. Kathleen Gregory Klein, for instance, insists that it's hard for us to respect Kinsey, since the novel's conflicts stem largely from her “errors” and “misjudg[ments],” including her “trust[ing] and sleep[ing] with a murderer who is trying to keep her from the truth.” Similarly, Rosalind Coward and Linda Semple, writing about Grafton and Paretsky, raise an important issue when they point out that, even though the heroines are “sympathetic” and “independent,” “their acceptance of the individualistic and machismo codes of violence are highly problematic.”7 And these criticisms make good sense on the level of the narrative audience, the level on which the reader pretends to treat the characters as real. On the level of the authorial audience, however—where the novel is seen not so much as a story about real characters but as a highly charged example of a particular generic pattern of repeated formal narrative features—we get a somewhat different picture.8 Indeed, as is appropriate in a novel about doubles, Grafton transgresses against the generic traditions in two separate, even opposing, ways that simultaneously liberate and obliterate the hard-boiled novel. Let's follow each trail in turn, starting with obliteration.

First, following a lead offered by one of the many meanings of Millhone, Grafton sharply grinds down the genre through parody. Lest I appear to be forcing a confession from an unwilling text (indeed, my colleague Carl Rubino suggested that I call my essay “‘O’ Is for Overreading”), let me point out that the novel is quite self-conscious in its generic gaming, often making its points by playfully literalizing metaphors. Thus, for all the detective stories with wild-goose chases, this is the only one I can recall where the detective is actually chased by geese (technically domestic geese, but wild enough to pose a substantial threat). No surprise, then, that Alibi is full of explicit and implicit digs at Grafton's hard-boiled brothers. Hammett, for instance, makes his bow as a dog named Dashiell who's just stepped into his own “little accident,” which, in an arch debunking of Sam Spade, has to be “scoop[ed]” up with a paper towel (p. 29). Similarly, when Kinsey acts in the tough manner of the Mickey Spillane whose name her own echoes, she criticizes herself for the cowardice motivating her bravado (“Tough. I'm tough, scaring the shit out of some dumb kid” [p. 197])—and Grafton makes sure that there's a hammer lying on the ground lest we fail to see Mike Hammer specifically as her literary target (p. 195).9 Spillane's Charlotte Manning too (as well as the vacuum cleaner on which much of I, the Jury's solution turns) is echoed in the name of Laurence's former lover, Charlotte Mercer, who, like her namesake, insists on real men who don't “fawn.”10

More important, Grafton rewrites these classic texts in a way that both exposes and explodes their violent misogyny. Indeed, the very choice of a female detective seriously disrupts the sexual politics of the genre.11 As I hardly need point out in the context of this collection, Victorian literary convention—indeed, Western literary convention back through Spenser to the Greeks—postulated that transgressive women must either be tamed (her transgression neutralized, usually through marriage) or punished (often through death); and this tradition was taken up and further codified in the American hard-boiled detective novel. Every critic, of course, has his or her own sense of the genre; still, while everyone might not list Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, Chandler's The Big Sleep, and Spillane's I, the Jury as their basic trinity, it's certainly not an idiosyncratic inventory of the model texts in the hard-boiled canon. And it's certainly not incidental to the history of the genre that all three lean heavily on the traditional thematics of the unnatural, sexually aggressive, and socially insubordinate woman.12 Granted, what Stephen Cooper aptly calls the “genre's commitment to the physical and emotional mistreatment of women” has a different meaning for each author.13 Thus, for instance, Stephen Knight suggests that the misogyny of Chandler's Marlowe has physical roots (he is “perturbed by those who can get to his body in some way,” which explains why doctors stand with women and homosexuals among the major threats), while Gary Day sees an almost philosophical drive behind Hammett's negative depiction of women, at least in the earlier Continental Op stories.14 Still, for all their psychological and political differences, these novels achieve both their emotional power and their formal coherence at least in part by concluding with the death or incarceration of the alluring female predator.15 In this regard, Laurence Fife is an emblem of the genre itself: he didn't like women, because “‘he was always expecting to be betrayed’” and he believed that “‘women were the people who did you in’” (p. 56).

Of course, for this pattern to perform its cultural work most effectively, it needs to remain under wraps. In particular, as two decades of feminist criticism have made increasingly clear, our culture has masked the gender specificity of the most familiar plot patterns that we live with by treating them as universal. Thus, in the case of the hard-boiled detective story, the overt narrative of exposure is but a front for a covert narrative of concealment, as the formula masks violent misogyny by disguising it as a generalized and gender-neutral form of justice. But once the formula is held up to its opposite—once we see, for instance, the pattern with the genders reversed—the resulting surprise and discomfort make clear how much gender is inherent in the original version, and thus bring its ideological function into focus. That's what Thelma and Louise does to the male buddy films of the Butch Cassidy type; and that's what Grafton's parody does to the hard-boiled detective novel.

For Alibi is, on at least one level, an annihilating cross-dressing of the genre. Indeed, the theme of cross-dressing is explicitly held out: when Charlie admits to his former obsession with candy bars, “his tone was caressing and he sounded like he was confessing to a secret addiction to wearing panty hose” (p. 51);16 when Garry Steinberg talks of his eating disorder, he shows Kinsey an old photo in which he “looked a bit like Arlette [the obese manager of the Hacienda Motor Lodge] might if she decided to cross-dress” (p. 123). Thus here, it's a sexually aggressive and socially disruptive male who threatens the independence of a lone female detective. Indeed, Charlie is introduced as a typical romantic hero of the Rochester type: “He had thick, sandy hair, receding at the temples, a solid jaw, cleft chin, his blue eyes magnified by big rimless glasses. His collar was open, his tie askew, sleeves rolled up as far as his muscular forearms would permit. … His smile was slow to form and smoldered with suppressed sexuality” (p. 23). But the contradictions in that heroic persona are mercilessly exposed. His raw animal sexuality, like that of Hammett's Brigid O'Shaughnessy, can be turned “off and on like a heater” (p. 24). And Nikki explicitly compares him to the kind of hero described on “‘the blurb of a paperback: “stepping over the bodies of those he loved”’” (p. 40). Furthermore, Grafton concretizes those bodies, making Charlie a literal lady-killer who has murdered three women by the time we reach the final scene, where he tries to do in our heroine. It's no surprise, then, that this novel achieves both its emotional power and its formal coherence at least in part by concluding with the death of this alluring male predator. Under the circumstances, it's hard not to see the closing line of the first ending—“I blew him away”—not only as a reference to Charlie himself, but to the whole tradition he stands for. When she kills Charlie Scorsoni, she's killing not only an individual but an imprisoning romantic cliché.

But at the same time that she pulverizes the genre, Grafton also uses it as a vehicle to express women's rage. For despite the comedy of Grafton's generic play, there is serious anger at work here. Indeed, according to Grafton herself, the novel is at least partly an act of revenge; and through her alter ego Kinsey—who Grafton sees as a “stripped down version” of herself17—the author gets away with murder.

“A” Is for Alibi … is partly based on a little scheme I came up with to kill an ex-husband of mine. He put me through three custody battles. He taught me how to fight, I'll tell you that. I learned it from an expert. I'd lie awake at night, feeling helpless and frustrated. In the process, I came up with an idea for doing him in. Of course, I knew I'd get caught at it and I'd have to spend the rest of my life in a shapeless prison dress. … Disgracing the very children I was fighting to keep. So I decided to put the murder plot in a book and get paid for it, and thus have the best of all possible worlds.18

The tone may be light, but Grafton's remarks bear witness to Alibi's assumption of heavy personal psychological weight. And if we view genre traditionally, as a set of common features found in a grouping of texts, it would appear that, while obliterating the genre, Grafton has still managed to twist it to serve her own ends.

Specifically, since men have used the genre as a way of venting antifeminism in a socially acceptable manner, Grafton writes Alibi to make space for her rage against at least one man in her life. Thus, not only for what it does to the genre, but also for what it allows her to say about her former husband, it's doubly appropriate that the novel closes in a parodic reversal of a locus classicus of hard-boiled misogyny, the final scene of I, the Jury. The reversal is wide-ranging: just as Mickey Spillane makes concrete the name of his villain Charlotte Manning (“‘You no longer had the social instinct of a woman—that of being dependent upon a man’”),19 so Grafton shows the meaning behind Charlie Scorsoni's name—derived not only from score but also from scorse, “to chase”—as he pursues Kinsey along the beach. Spillane's literal exposure of the villain—in the form of a slow striptease—is here replaced by the desperate disrobing of the detective; and as Spillane ends with his detective shooting the alluring female predator and former heartthrob as she is attempting to seduce and kill him, Grafton, as we've seen, replays the scene with the genders reversed. Under the circumstances, it is hard not to hear the ending line “I blew him away” not only as a farewell to the romantic cliché of the Rochester type but more specifically as an echo of Mike Hammer's famous last words in I, the Jury: “It was easy.”20 The effect is electric: for whatever Kinsey's doubts on the level of the narrative audience (doubts she expresses in the coda), there's little question that with this dramatic closure Grafton has succeeded, for the authorial audience, in finding a concrete representation for her own rage against her former husband. That she blows him away from a position inside a trash bin has multiple symbolic resonances. Kinsey's first homicide case put her up against a woman who suffocated her own children in a garbage can—and that experience “cured” Kinsey of “homicidal urges” as well as “any desire for motherhood” (p. 112). But on another level, her final position only serves to remind us that even the trashiest literature can, if taken over and remade, serve as a site of empowerment.


But, as I've argued elsewhere, there's another way of considering genre. In a subplot of the novel, Kinsey tries to protect California Fidelity Insurance Company from a trumped-up liability claim filed by one Marcia Threadgill. Kinsey manages to expose the fraud with photographs; but in the end, the insurance company refuses to read them the way she does. The pictures expose not only the crime but also the breasts of the well-endowed Threadgill; to company representative Andy Motycka, they're more valuable as pornography than evidence, and he decides it's not worth fighting the claim in court (pp. 156-57). In some ways, genres are no different from liability claims—they often take on an interpretive life of their own, despite attempts to limit them.

Specifically, literary conventions lie as much in readers as in texts; that is, they can be seen not only as repetitions of concrete literary elements, but also as shared interpretive strategies for making sense of the books we read. And genres can thus be seen not only formally, as sets of features, but from the reader's perspective, as packages of interpretive procedures for unlocking literary secrets through a process of transformation. These procedures include what I've called rules of notice (which tell us where to direct our attention), rules of signification (which allow us to draw the meaning from the details we notice—for instance, to draw psychological meaning from facts about a character or to draw sexual innuendos from specific textual features), rules of configuration (which permit readers to put together disparate elements into a larger formal pattern, and hence develop expectation and a sense of closure), and rules of coherence (which allow us to ascribe generalized meaning to the completed experience of the work). From this perspective, reading is always “reading as”: reading Moby Dick “as” an adventure story produces a significantly different interpretive experience from reading it as a symbolic novel.21 Just as Kinsey operates by tacking index cards on a bulletin board and “telling myself the story as I perceive it” (p. 20), so readers in general create their own literary experiences. This is not to say that reading is a random process of subjective association. People read differently, but not necessarily idiosyncratically. For while the procedures we use to produce the texts we live with may not be firmly fixed, they are still explicitly taught and widely shared.

Thus, one can conceptualize the hard-boiled detective story not simply as a collection of texts with a reiterated plot pattern. One can also conceptualize it as a predisposition on the part of readers to take whatever texts are already labeled “hard-boiled novels” and interpret them according to a familiar preexisting set of interpretive rules. Let me clarify with an example. Critics often testify that hard-boiled detectives gain moral stature—indeed, a moral stature so potent that we are able to accept their acts of violence—because they represent a code of decency that raises them above the moral trash bins in which they find themselves. “Down these mean streets,” as Chandler's oft-quoted phrase has it, “a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid … a man of honor.”22 I would argue, however, that this way of putting things reverses evidence and verdict. Private eyes do not in fact earn their stature; the reason we accept their violence is not that they concretely incorporate values that raise them above the criminals. Rather, the reader applies a rule of signification that we might call the Rule of Gumshoe Honor. This way of reading imbues the plot function of the detective with moral quality. That is, the reader assigns a positive valence to the values that detective heroes hold because he or she comes to the text with a prior predisposition to read the novel as if the detective's values, whatever they are, are in fact so admirable—so untarnished—that violent defense of them is not only acceptable, but commendable, even necessary. Honor sticks to the detective, almost regardless of his actions. Indeed, one of the major subgenres consists of texts, such as James Ellroy's The Big Nowhere, or the films Black Widow,Cop,The Big Easy, and Internal Affairs that push this line: how far can the detective go, how much become like the criminal, before the reader will refuse to apply this rule of signification?

From this perspective, Mike Hammer doesn't earn the respect of the authorial audience (that is, Spillane's assumed readers) by convincing it of the validity of his eye-for-an-eye code of justice, any more than Travis McGee earns the respect of John D. MacDonald's (rather different) authorial audience for his environmental concerns. Rather, the authorial audiences accept the validity of the codes because, due to their prior experiences with detective fiction, they come to the novels already ready to accept, at least during the course of reading, whatever code the detective espouses, unless there is strong pressure to do otherwise. To use an increasingly popular computer metaphor, the validity of the detective's code is the default position of the authorial audience.

It's on this level, I'd argue—on the level of convention as the resilient rubber sole on which the reader travels through the text—that Grafton remains a victim of convention. For especially when a convention serves important ideological functions, it may well be used as an interpretive key even when there is good reason to believe that the author did not intend it to be applied. Specifically, if the novel is going to work either as an obliteration of the genre or as a vehicle for the expression of rage, Kinsey cannot be tamed or punished, cannot suffer the fate of either Marianne Dashwood or Daisy Miller. But in fact, despite Grafton's efforts, she is both tamed and punished. That's because of the interaction of a number of rules that readers of detective stories are used to applying: the Rule of Gumshoe Honor and several rules of parallelism.

First, and more obvious, Kinsey is apt to be tamed by readers, both through justification and through esteem. Thus, Maureen Reddy may quite well be right in her analysis of the thematics that emerges when the novel is viewed from a traditional formalist perspective, as a set of concrete textual features: “The novel's central theme is women's position in marriage. … The crime of passion committed by the woman pales in comparison to the man's cold determination to destroy anyone who gets in his way.”23 Nonetheless, the genre as a set of strategies provides the means to neutralize this transgressive thematics, encouraging us to redraw the boundaries so that Kinsey is tamed by redefinition.

We can see, for instance, the domesticating effect of the Rule of Gumshoe Honor in the tendency, on the part of many readers, to vindicate Kinsey's killing of Charlie as an act of self-defense. Looked at logically and legalistically, self-defense seems a curious description of the novel's culminating act of violence. Granted, Charlie chases Kinsey and threatens her life, but she's got a gun, he's only got a knife. More important, before that final moment, Kinsey has several miles of beach on which to hide, and her self-described overpowering “urge to flee” (p. 211)—especially given its crackling of erotic electricity and its climactic striptease—seems motivated by attraction as much as by evasion. That is, their “little cat-and-mouse” (p. 213) might just as well be seen as a relentless pursuit of a showdown in the Ludlow Beach parking lot; indeed, she finds herself “searching for Charlie” (p. 212) as Charlie is waiting for her. But literarily speaking, the self-defense plea seems a reasonable (indeed, almost irresistible) application of traditional generic rules, especially once we get evidence and conclusion properly sorted out. It's not that the killing is vindicated because it's an act of self-defense; it's that it's considered an act of self-defense because, according to the Rule of Gumshoe Honor, the climactic killing of the villain has to be vindicated, and self-defense is the only rubric under which we can interpret this particular killing so that it fits our generic strategies.

Esteem operates in a similar way. In an analysis of four canonical hard-boiled films, Stephen Cooper has argued that “For all the putative personal integrity and independence ascribed to him by [Chandler], … the detective in fact does align himself implicitly with the very forces of repressive power against which he struggles.”24 Some critics have argued, however, that the hard-boiled feminists have disrupted precisely this traditional alignment of the detective with repressive authority. Lyn Pykett, for instance, claims that these new crime novels question “conventional assumptions about detection and about the authority of the detective. In the new women's crime novel the female investigator does not usually possess the detective's traditional superior perspective and moral authority.”25 But the view of genre I'm proposing suggests that “superior perspective” is like honor: what Chandler calls “a range of awareness that startles you”26 is not “possessed” by the detective so much as assigned by the reader. That is, except in those rare cases of entirely inept detectives (Wallas in Robbe-Grillet's Les Gommes), readers are apt to grant authority to the detective, whether she deserves it or not, and even (or perhaps, in a neatly Socratic paradox, especially) when she says that she does not deserve it. For expressions of nonauthority are, especially in our postmodern world, the most authoritative statements one can make. Thus, for instance, the fact that Charlie's death “weighs heavily on [Kinsey's] mind” (p. 1)—a sense reiterated in the nostalgic, self-critical coda of the novel—only serves to make it that much more acceptable and less transgressive, especially since that kind of self-deprecation plays into traditional gender typings for women.

To put it in other terms, one possible resonance of Kinsey's last name is the once-common drug Milltown—and there's a sense in which the reader familiar with the novel's generic antecedents is apt to tranquilize its more radical implications.27 That is, our store of reading strategies provides us with means for smoothing over the cognitive dissonance potential in this novel, since our familiarity with the genre—in particular, the male models she seems to be attacking—provides interpretive techniques that allow us to define her act as not a transgression at all. Whatever Grafton's intentions, then, readers may well find themselves casting the novel so that Kinsey does not really step over the line at all. True, she's not married, as Marianne Dashwood is; indeed, in traditional gumshoe fashion, she comes to realize that “all you have left is yourself” (p. 215). But instead of children, she gets the respectability of a series of her own. Grafton's use of circular form only serves to reinforce this sense of a return to traditional, conservative order: the novel begins at the end, with Kinsey Millhone introducing herself as a person who “make[s] ends meet,” right after she has telegraphed the climax: “The day before yesterday I killed someone” (p. 1). And surely, another overtone in her resonant last name is mill in the sense of “to move in circles.”

Second, and more important, Kinsey receives punishment through parallelism. Parallelism, of course, is central to the novel, for Grafton makes her dramatic point precisely by disrupting a fundamental configurative rule of parallels. According to this rule, readers of narrative—especially detective fiction—can usually approach the text on the assumption that apparently divergent plot strands will, following literature's frankly non-Euclidean treatment of parallels, in fact turn out to be intertwined. Thus, Austen's Emma (a detective story of sorts) achieves closure when the interconnection of its apparently disconnected plot events is revealed; even the apparently chaotic events of The Big Sleep turn out to be part of a single web. Grafton's novels frequently disrupt this expectation—“G” Is for Gumshoe, for instance, chronicles both Kinsey's historical search into the dark past of a family oddly named after the Brontë's, and her current attempt to escape from a killer who has her on his hit list; but while the events of the two plots overlap, the stories themselves remain separate. Alibi plays with this convention in a more consciously disruptive fashion. We have what at first appears to be a single strand of killings. This “false assumption” that “same M.O.” means “same murderer” (p. 192) leads Kinsey into a dangerous relationship; for since Charlie has no apparent reason for having killed Laurence, Kinsey fools herself into thinking he's probably innocent of the other crimes as well. As we've seen, it is her discovery that this apparently single plot line is in fact double that allows her to solve the case.

But in playing with this rule of configuration, Grafton has tangled herself in a connected rule of signification. Kinsey wryly quotes a friend as saying “‘Wherever there is sex, we work to create a relationship that's worthy of it’” (p. 178). A similar thing happens in reading: wherever there is a potential for parallelism, we work to create a reading that will actualize it. That is, elements that can be treated as parallel should be treated that way, especially when they are introduced under the rubric of parallelism: that's why we know to read Anna Karenina so that the Anna story and the Levin story stand as mutually illuminating mirrors of each other. And just as we're invited to see Laurence and Charlie as brothers under the skin, so we are apt to see Gwen and Kinsey, the two women who kill them, as sisters as well. They are both, after all, divorcées, and they both kill the men they sleep with; they're the two final targets of Charlie's string of killings. Gwen's dog salon (K-9 Korners) and her assistant Kathy can be read (especially in a novel whose title highlights the alphabet) as a bridge to Kinsey, as well. Then too, Kinsey describes Gwen with an envy that parallels the envy in Grafton's own description of Kinsey. In discussing her creation as her alter ego, Grafton wistfully notes, “She'll always be thinner and younger and braver, the lucky so-and-so.”28 The sentiment is echoed when Kinsey says of Gwen: “I … hoped to hell I could look that good in another ten years” (p. 35).

The connection between the women is especially strong for contemporary readers familiar with the traditional nineteenth-century novelistic conventions—as Grafton's extensive use of the Brontë family history in “G” Is for Gumshoe suggests that she expects her readers to be. Literary texts, after all, take on a large part of their meaning according to the intertextual grid against which they're placed, the other texts that we have in our mind as we read and against which particular details stand out, either as echoes or as deviations. And a reader who has learned to read Bertha Mason, for instance, as the repressed representative of Jane Eyre's more sexual, less socially responsible side, or who has learned to read Rebecca and Rowena, or Marianne and Elinor, as fragments of a single personality, is apt to read Grafton's novel so that it recapitulates the same pattern.

In other words, familiarity with these traditional interpretive rules encourages readers to see the two women as representatives of one another. And Gwen, we shouldn't forget, is dead at the end of the book. Granted, she's neither captured by the police nor mowed down in an act of vengeance; rather, she's the last in Charlie's panicky string of murders.29 Still, there's a rule of coherence operating here, the Rule of Damned if You Do: deaths of transgressive women (whether it be Catherine Barkley's death in childbirth or Maggie Tulliver's drowning or Daisy Miller's death from Roman fever) are to be read as punishment.

My point is not that Grafton has engineered this parallelism between the two women. On the contrary, Alibi depends, for its radicalizing effect, on minimizing the connection between them. Rather, my claim is that our predisposition to create cohering analogies in situations of parallelism makes us look for ways to connect them, and we're likely to use the traditional interpretive technique of displacement to fit it all together in a way that exposes Kinsey's success as a scam. In this regard, it's worth noting that the homicidal intentions motivating Grafton's text have been divided up between these two women. For while it's Kinsey who has the pleasure of blowing away a predatory male, it's Gwen who, eight years before the novel begins, actually carries out the crime that Grafton wanted to commit—and it's Gwen who manifests Grafton's motivation of revenge, not only in the actual killing but in the affair she has with her ex-husband just prior to the murder (p. 187) and even in such small actions as her choice of colors for the house (p. 38). And once we interpret Gwen's punishment as a form of displacement, our satisfaction at Kinsey's transgression suddenly becomes less secure. It's not that she's really succeeded in blowing away the predatory male; it's simply that someone else has taken the rap. Word hunters may thus find particular resonance in the title, especially since Grafton has opened up the door to various kinds of doubling: for alibi comes from the Latin meaning “elsewhere”—in other words, an alibi is a literal displacement.30

In the end, then, when we treat genre as a set of strategies, our reading of the text may be both overdetermined and contradictory, since Kinsey can be interpreted as a woman tamed and a woman punished. But however she oscillates, she never quite finds a new position in which to stand, and this transgressive novel suddenly finds itself springing back into the same familiar trajectories.


What's at stake here, of course, is not so much my interpretation(s) of this particular novel—there are other ways to read it, and I've read it in other ways myself. It would be interesting to see, for instance, whether readers who don't share my background as a white male academic apply similar or different strategies to the text. But regardless of our differences in interpreting this particular text, the general principle at stake remains the same. The intersection of gender and genre has increasingly become a hot spot of critical activity, and a great deal of theorizing is devoted to questioning the ways in which generic patterns limit our perceptions and our possibilities. The answers to those questions, of course, have hardly begun to be explored: but I hope that my argument here will encourage us, as we start to walk down these mean streets, to recognize the importance of considering genres not only as features but also as strategies. For it may be in readers, rather than in texts, that the real repressive power of genre is felt.


  1. Sue Grafton, “A” Is for Alibi (1982; rpt. New York: Bantam Books, 1987), p. 150. Subsequent quotations from this edition will hereafter be cited parenthetically by page number.

  2. In a paper on doublings, generic interconnections, and lack of authorial control, it is perhaps appropriate that I discovered, when I presented a version of this paper at the Narrative Conference in Nice during the summer of 1991, that my title unintentionally echoes that of an earlier paper by Dale Bauer (“Reader, I Buried Him”), given at the Narrative Conference in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1989. I appreciate Dale's gracious relinquishment of the title, as well as the helpful commentary by Patricia Cholakian, Ann Coiro, Bonnie Krueger, Deborah Pokinski, Nancy Rabinowitz, David Richter, Carl Rubino, Nancy Warren, and Tamara Williams.

  3. Bruce Taylor, “G Is for (Sue) Grafton: An Interview with the Creator of the Kinsey Millhone Private Eye Series Who Delights Mystery Fans as She Writes Her Way through the Alphabet,” Armchair Detective 22, no. 1 (Winter 1989): 11. It's worth noting, however, that Grafton distinguishes feminism and separatism: “I despise gender-segregated events of any kind” (p. 12).

  4. B. Ruby Rich, “The Lady Dicks: Genre Benders Take the Case,” Village Voice Literary Supplement, June 1989, p. 24.

  5. Taylor, “G Is for Grafton,” p. 12.

  6. Of course, the history of women detective novelists is longer and more complex than this simple dichotomy would suggest. For more detailed accounts, see Jane S. Bakerman, ed., And Then There Were Nine—More Women of Mystery (Bowling Green, Ohio: Popular Press, 1985); Earl F. Bargainnier, ed., Ten Women of Mystery (Bowling Green, Ohio: Popular Press, 1981); Faye M. Blake, “Lady Sleuths and Female Detectives,” Turn-of-the-Century Women 8, no. 1 (1986): 29-42; Rosalind Coward and Linda Semple, “Tracking Down the Past: Women and Detective Fiction,” in From My Guy to Sci-Fi: Genre and Women's Writing in the Postmodern World, ed. Helen Carr (London: Pandora Press, 1989), pp. 39-57; Kathlyn Ann Fritz and Natalie Kaufman Hevener, “An Unsuitable Job for a Woman: Female Protagonists in the Detective Novel,” International Journal of Women's Studies 2, no. 2 (1979): 105-28; Kathleen Gregory Klein, The Woman Detective: Gender and Genre (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1988); and Maureen T. Reddy, Sisters in Crime: Feminism and the Crime Novel (New York: Continuum [A Frederick Ungar Book], 1988). Indeed, Jane S. Bakerman makes the argument that the genre is made for women: “The traditional male private-eye shares a number of characteristics with female heroes,” she argues, pointing specifically to the private eye's “disenchantment with the establishment, … insistence upon his concept of integrity, [and] distrust of all who reflect her [sic] professional attitude,” she concludes that “the hard-boiled subgenre and feminist fiction are amazingly well suited for one another” (Jane S. Bakerman, “Living ‘Openly and with Dignity’—Sara Paretsky's New-Boiled Feminist Fiction,” Midamerica 12 [1985]: 126, 124). And even Kinsey herself tries this ploy: “The basic characteristics of any good investigator are a plodding nature and infinite patience. Society has inadvertently been grooming women to this end for years” (p. 27). Still, historically, the hard-boiled genre has been dominated by males, both as authors and as detectives, and it's therefore no surprise that there are no chapters on women novelists in, for instance, Brian Docherty, ed., American Crime Fiction: Studies in the Genre (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988).

  7. Klein, The Woman Detective, p. 204; Coward and Semple, “Tracking Down the Past,” p. 46.

  8. For a fuller discussion of the difference between narrative and authorial audience, see Peter J. Rabinowitz, Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of Interpretation (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1987), pp. 96-104.

  9. There are also explicit references to Spillane in “B” Is for Burglar (New York: Bantam, 1986), e.g., p. 103. Thanks to Alison Booth for pointing out the connection between the names.

  10. Mickey Spillane, I, the Jury (1947) (New York: Signet, n.d.), p. 61. One might point out as well that Charlotte Mercer is married to a judge; Charlotte Manning talks of marrying a man who's a jury.

  11. See Sue Ellen Campbell's discussion of the “generic shift” that results “at least partly” from “the presence of a heroine—a figure for whom there is no established formula and who consequently forces both characters and plots out of their usual molds” (“The Detective Heroine and the Death of Her Hero: Dorothy Sayers to P. D. James,” Modern Fiction Studies 29, no. 3 [Autumn 1983]: 498).

  12. James Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice is often considered a fourth key text in the tradition. I have not listed it above because it is not exactly a detective novel; but it is worth noting that it, too, follows the same pattern as its brothers.

  13. Stephen Cooper, “Sex/Knowledge/Power in the Detective Genre,” Film Quarterly 42, no. 3 (Spring 1989): 26-27.

  14. Stephen Knight, “‘A Hard Cheerfulness’: An Introduction to Raymond Chandler,” in American Crime Fiction: Studies in the Genre, ed. Brian Docherty (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988), p. 79; Gary Day, “Investigating the Investigator: Hammett's Continental Op,” in American Crime Fiction, pp. 39-53.

  15. See James F. Maxfield: “One thing Hammett's heroes have in common is that, according to Karen Horney's formulations, they are all neurotics of a certain type. … whose idealized self is that of the master or dominator. … What better profession for a person who distrusts others and needs to feel superior to them than that of the detective?” (“Hard-Boiled Dicks and Dangerous Females: Sex and Love in the Detective Fiction of Dashiell Hammett,” Clues 6, no. 1 [1985]: 109). In this regard, mistreatment of women is not simply incidental: “Emotional vulnerability is a far greater menace than physical vulnerability. … Sexual desire is possibly the greatest threat to the Hammett hero's invulnerability” (p. 111). See also Robert L. Sandels on Spillane: “The most serious threat to the detective's effectiveness in his war on crime is not the female as criminal but the deflecting power of women's sexuality. … The typical Spillane hero … was an anomaly for a man of his time: a real man capable of solving two of modern life's most perplexing problems—crime and women's feminization and domestication of men” (“The Battle of the Sexes,” Armchair Detective 20, no. 4 [Fall 1987]: 154). For a fuller discussion of the female predator in The Big Sleep, and the way she has been misread by generations of readers, see Rabinowitz, Before Reading, chapter 6.

  16. One could devote a whole essay to the role of underwear in Grafton; thanks to Victor Rabinowitz for this observation.

  17. She continues: “She's the person I would have been had I not married young and had children. … Her biography is different, but our sensibilities are identical. … Because of Kinsey, I get to lead two lives—hers and mine. Sometimes I'm not sure which I prefer” (Taylor, “G Is for Grafton,” p. 10).

  18. Ibid., p. 8.

  19. Spillane, I, the Jury, p. 167.

  20. Ibid., p. 174.

  21. For a fuller discussion of this view of reading, see Rabinowitz, Before Reading.

  22. Raymond Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder” (1944), in his The Simple Art of Murder (New York: Pocket Books, 1952), p. 194.

  23. Reddy, Sisters in Crime, pp. 108-9.

  24. Cooper, “Sex/Knowledge/Power,” p. 24.

  25. Lyn Pykett, “Seizing the Crime: Recent Women's Crime Fiction,” New Welsh Review 2, no. 1 (Summer 1989): 26. The hard-boiled women novelists resist traditional patterns of authority in another way as well, for they have developed female characters who can survive without male help (something that Sayers and Cross, for instance, were not always able to do). See, for instance, Roberts: “In almost every case where Kate [Fansler] needs help she calls on a man” (Jeanne Addison Roberts, “Feminist Murder: Amanda Cross Reinvents Womanhood,” Clues 6, no. 1 (1985): 9. For further discussion of authority, see also Campbell, “The Detective Heroine.”

  26. Chandler, “The Simple Art,” p. 194.

  27. In this regard, I'm less optimistic than Godard in her discussion of Canadian fiction: “Feminist writers are using certain popular and highly coded genres such as science fiction, fantasy, whodunits and utopian fictions because these forms free writers—and readers—from the constraints of realism, free them to hypothesize alternative realities. … These texts contest the privileging of a single discourse. … [and] refuse the comfort and stability of a fixed subject position to their readers. Refusing to smooth over these contradictory discourses, the text invites answers to the questions it raises, producing its reader as an active participant in the construction of meaning. In this, the text deploys devices to draw attention to its textuality, so undermining its illusionist characteristics” (Barbara Godard, “Sleuthing: Feminists Re/writing the Detective Novel,” Signature: A Journal of Theory and Canadian Literature 1 [Summer 1989]: 46-47). See also Coward and Semple, “Tracking Down the Past.”

  28. Taylor, “G Is for Grafton,” p. 10.

  29. It's quite possible that this was simply an easy way out for Grafton—she didn't have to decide what to do with this fairly sympathetic murderer. But if so, that shows a limitation of the genre, which doesn't really have a comfortable space for such situations, even though several practitioners have, with strenuous generic revision, managed to let their murderers escape. No examples can be given, unfortunately, without ruining the surprise of good texts.

  30. Thanks to Barbara Gold for her instructive commentary on this line. If we accept Maxfield's analysis of P. D. James's An Unsuitable Job for a Woman—specifically his contention that Cordelia is working out her own relationship to her dead father—then a similar form of displacement can be seen in that novel as well (James F. Maxfield, “The Unfinished Detective: The Work of P. D. James,” Critique 28, no. 4 [Summer 1987]: 211-23).

Patricia E. Johnson (essay date spring 1994)

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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 novels by female writers, in particular Sue Grafton's first Kinsey Millhone mystery, A Is for Alibi (1982), and Sara Paretsky's fourth V. I. Warshawski mystery, Bitter Medicine (1987), and I am interested in locating the differences that appear when female writers place female detectives in this classic situation of sex and betrayal. For both male and female detectives, these cases suggest a number of issues: the relation and conflict between personal feeling and professional duty; stereotyping and distrust of the other sex; and the many connections between sex, on the one hand, and power, danger, and violence, on the other. The problems that this situation creates for the writers and for critics such as myself are striking. Both Grafton and Paretsky define themselves as feminists and both are seen as feminists by critics, yet both create female detectives who imitate a male model almost to a tee—the hard-boiled male detective, emotionally and financially independent, a loner, divorced without family. Like the male detectives, Kinsey Millhone and V. I. Warshawski define themselves through their profession which deals with issues traditionally seen as male: violence, crime, and power. Are these novels, then, simply a misguided attempt to appropriate a form inherently sexist? Or can there emerge a different relation both to the form and the issues of violence, crime, and power? The sex and betrayal plot strikes at the root of these issues of gender and gendered issues.

Critical opinion on the issue of whether female detectives can successfully assume the stance of the hard-boiled seems evenly divided. On the one side are absolutely negative evaluations such as that given by Victoria Nichols and Susan Thompson in their survey of crime fiction by women entitled Silk Stalkings: When Woman Write of Murder:

the world really does not need any more stereotypical, hard-boiled private eyes … qualities such as tenderness, empathy, and nurturing are often set aside in favor of a macha bravada we find detrimental and counterproductive not only in the cause of feminism but humanism as well.


In The Woman Detective: Gender and Genre Kathleen Gregory Klein largely agrees with this assessment, stating that “adopting the [hard-boiled] formula traps their authors” (201).1 On the other side, critics such as Jane S. Bakerman and Maureen T. Reddy see real advantages if female rewritings of the hard-boiled. Bakerman finds that “Sara Paretsky has reformulated and reenergized an old literary pattern by recognizing the value of combining the hard-boiled detective novel with feminist fiction” (135), and Reddy similarly concludes that “[e]very feature of male hard-boiled detective novels is transformed in women's novels (120).

What I find interesting in this debate is exactly where and in what manner a female protagonist could be seen as disturbing to the hard-boiled detective formula. Does the writer have to adopt certain strategies in order to unsettle the assumptions of the form or would the very fact of making the detective female disrupt it? I think one way of explaining the difference that readers experience what they read female hard-boiled detective fiction is to think through the archetypal material that the formula draws upon. Many critics have argued convincingly that American hard-boiled fiction is deeply archetypal, drawing on hero and quest motifs that reach back at least to the Middle Ages (See, for example, Geherin 1; Margolies 84; and Lehman 25). Further, along with the hero archetype come some striking, and strikingly negative, female archetypes. As William Marling explains, for example, Dashiell Hammett's portrayals of the femme fatale draw upon the archetype of the “succubus, a female demon who has sex with sleeping, helpless men” (67). I would like to suggest that the tensions readers experience with female detectives lies in the ways that they, not reverse, be decenter some of the archetypes, male and female, that the form has constantly structured itself around. Thus the traditional male detective's reaction to the plot of sex and betrayal is that 1) he does not investigate or question the nature of his sexual attraction to the suspect; and 2) most of the disturbing aspects of the relationship are assigned to the female suspect. More importantly, however, the disastrous conclusion of the relationship, when the guilt of the other party is revealed, does not challenge the detective's sense of himself as professional and powerful.2 I do not want to gloss over either the differences between male detectives involved in such situations or the levels of disturbance that such an involvement puts into motion in even the most hard-boiled of stories. But the femme fatale is granted a Circe-like power over men, relieving them of responsibility for their actions, and second, the man who can break the grip of that power, like Ulysses, is granted an heroic status.

How different the situation is when a female detective becomes involved with a male suspect is demonstrated by the two contrasting treatments that this plot receives in Sue Grafton's “A” Is for Alibi and Sara Paretsky's Bitter Medicine. Detectives Kinsey Millhone and V. I. Warshawski have deliberately defined themselves against most cultural norms of the feminine, yet, at the same time, their authors want us to know that both are feminine and not only feminine but (hetero)sexually desirable and active. Thus the sexual relationship with a male suspect violently threatens a self-definition based on a precarious balancing act. First, traditional romance places the woman in a passive position (she is courted, she is asked out). Second, the sexual double standard (which still insists the woman risks more than the man in a sexual or potentially sexual relationship) and the cultural tendency to read male sexuality as a sexual/physical violence exert a pull over power relations, shifting them in the male's direction. Third, the sexual relationship breaks down the barriers between private life and professional life that the detective has struggled to build. Therefore, in contrast to the male detective, cultural traditions and archetypes are against the female detective. Yet, finally and paradoxically, I will argue that this creates an advantage for Grafton and Paretsky.

First, a brief survey of the two novel's plots: In “A” Is for Alibi detective Kinsey Millhone becomes sexually and emotionally involved with lawyer Charlie Scarsoni whom she meets while investigating a murder. In Bitter Medicine detective V. I. Warshawski has a brief relationship with doctor Peter Burgoyne while she is investigating the hospital he works for. In both cases the lover is the key to the mystery. Charlie Scarsoni is the murderer Kinsey is seeking, and he commits two more murders during the investigation in order to cover his tracks. Finally, he attempts to kill Kinsey herself when she discovers the truth; in self-defense, Kinsey shoots and kills him. Peter Burgoyne is a co-conspirator in both his hospital's malfeasance and a cover-up which results in the murder of another doctor. He is wooing V. I. in order to keep tabs on her investigation. When she solves the case by exposing him, he confesses his part in the conspiracy, exposes the hospital's administrator as the murderer, and commits suicide by shooting himself in front of V. I. and other witnesses.

The unique aspect of Grafton's “A” Is for Alibi is its stark analysis of the issues inherent in the sex and betrayal plot. It's important to remember that Grafton and Millhone are at the beginning of the alphabet here and some of the long-term survival skills of the hard-boiled have not yet been learned. The gusto with which Kinsey responds to her sexual attraction to Charlie Scorsoni and the openness with which she shares her emotions with her reader are risky, so risky that they won't happen again. Kinsey's relationship with Scorsoni brings several contradictions buried in her character and, in fact, inherent in the basic plot, to the surface. First, she responds to and becomes consciously aware of a confusion, or, more threatening, a connection between sexual excitement and violent danger. When Kinsey first meets Scorsoni she responds to him strongly, but she is unsure of how to interpret her response. In hindsight it becomes clear that Scorsoni's mystery and his violent underside are what Kinsey is homing in on. It is as if he were sending her electronic signals which excite her and which a part of her wants to decode as sexual and another part as clues to some mystery, a mystery that turns out to be the answer to the case she is investigating. For example, she says, “My early-warning system was clanging away like crazy and I wasn't sure how to interpret it. It's the same sensation I have sometimes on the twenty-first floor when I open a window—a terrible attraction to the notion of tumbling out” (52). Later, when Scorsoni takes Kinsey out to dinner, she comments, “There was something else about him, too, smoldering and opaque, the same sense I'd had before of sexuality that surfaced now and then. Sometimes he seemed to emit an almost audible hum, like a line of power stations marching inexorably across a hillside, ominous and marked with danger signs. I was afraid of him” (144). But as the dinner proceeds and Kinsey finds herself responding more and more intensely, she hits the nail on the head—it's not a confusion of messages but precisely their mixture that draws her: “the look he laid on me then was oddly sexual, full of strange, compelling male heat as though money and power and sexuality were all somehow tangled up for him and fed on one another. There was really nothing open or loose or free about him, however candid he might seem, but I knew that it was precisely his opacity that appealed to me” (147). In Scorsoni Kinsey finds sex, danger, violence, power, and mystery all wrapped around each other, a private relationship that adds physical passion to the very qualities that bind her to her profession.

But once Kinsey begins a sexual relationship with Scorsoni, a power imbalance becomes activated. Though at first Kinsey describes their love-making in the more egalitarian, electronic terms that had dominated the first phase of their relationship—she says, “it was as though a channel had been opened between us, sexual energy flowing back and forth without impediment” (148)—the balance of sexual power almost immediately shifts in Scorsoni's direction. Part of this is because Kinsey herself shifts to traditional images of male sexuality. She describes their first sexual encounter as “All of the emotional images were of pounding assault, sensations of boom and buffet and battering ram until he had broken through to me, rolling down again and over me until all my walls were reduced to rubble and ash” (148). And Scorsoni clearly intends to use this traditional sexual role-playing as a psychological weapon with which to control Kinsey. In fact, he tries to flaunt his power over her, emphasizing what he defines as her dependence on him and her lack of sexual self-control. This appears in a striking and humiliating image that he applies to Kinsey, shortly before they have sex for the second time. He compares her to a dog, saying she needs sex like a dog needs to be walked. At this point Kinsey seems to be far gone in a dangerous and confused relationship that will force her into a more and more powerless position.

Despite Scorsoni's sexual and emotional power over her, however, Kinsey demonstrates that she can pull back from the relationship. She can still locate and reestablish the line between private relationships and professional responsibilities. Just after Scorsoni makes his comments on dogs, he criticizes and tries to limit Kinsey's thinking about her case, complaining about her probing memory of things he has said about it. Kinsey's response is immediate anger, and she storms out. Though Scorsoni follows this fight with an apology and another night of lovemaking, he has crossed the line between private life and professional commitment in a way that Kinsey cannot tolerate. Though the sex still exerts a strong power over her, Kinsey decides that she must stop seeing Scorsoni until she has solved the case. When she asks for a respite, Scorsoni threatens her with a complete break, and this pressure has the opposite effect from what he had hoped. Instead of bringing her to heel, it triggers her suspicions about the nature of his involvement with her.

This overview of the case suggests that, given the basic plot, Kinsey has acted quite reasonably. She is strongly attracted to Scorsoni yet she has kept the sex firmly separate from her professional commitments and puts the relationship on hold when she recognizes that it is having an impact on her investigation. Yet, interestingly, despite the fact that she has acted so well, the case carries a disturbing amount of unassimilated emotional residue. This is apparent in her final confrontation with Scorsoni after she has uncovered his guilt. He pursues her at night along a deserted beach and to hide from him Kinsey crawls into a garbage can. This final, resonating image from the case remains unaddressed by Kinsey, but the reader can assume that, despite solving the case, Kinsey feels like garbage. The sexual/emotional relationship with the murderer Scorsoni has contaminated both her private and professional life. Her summary of the case admits as much. The novel concludes with this statement: “I'll recover, of course. I'll be ready for business again in a week or two, but I'll never be the same. You try to keep life simple but it never works, and in the end all you have left is yourself” (215).

Paretsky's Bitter Medicine approaches the same plot from the opposite direction, but, in the end, confirms Grafton's sense that sex with a suspect sets the detective adrift in a confluence of desire and power and leaves an ongoing emotional residue. Bitter Medicine differs because of Paretsky's double-barreled approach to containing the issues of sex and power that Grafton, by contrast, releases. Paretsky as author's contribution is the demonstrable weakness of Peter Burgoyne, lover and suspect, as a character. He is presented as nondescript, boyish, and unsure of himself. V. I.'s neighbor, Mr. Contreras, confirms this assessment by describing Burgoyne several times as “a lightweight” (114, 258) and, more aggressively and problematically, “that pansy doctor” (180). Burgoyne himself seems to agree with this assessment when he points out that he is descended from General Burgoyne, Revolutionary War loser: “Did I ever tell you I was descended from the General Burgoyne who did so badly for the British at Saratoga? I know just how he felt. The Americans fought dirty, and he got squeamish” (133). He follows this confession by referring to V. I. as “General Washington” (133). And Burgoyne's status as a loser is confirmed by his every action (with the important exception of his relationship with V. I.), from his selling his ideals out for money in his job with Friendship Hospital, to his weak-kneed agreement to help cover up a murder he feels guilty about, to his final act of suicide. V. I. fully cooperates in Paretsky's debunking of male power by describing the sex between herself and Burgoyne as an exercise in technique: “For the next hour or so he demonstrated the value a good knowledge of anatomy can have in the right hands. My detective experience came in handy, too” (91). It does not appear to be any more emotionally significant than a jog around the lake. Their relationship is treated so casually that it is hard to determine exactly how much V. I. sees of him. She says, for example, “I continued to see Peter Burgoyne, somewhat sporadically” (118) and, later, when V. I. describes a trip to Peter Burgoyne's house during which he arranges for evidence to be removed from her apartment, she vaguely admits, “I'd been to Peter's a few times already. The dog seemed to know me and was almost as glad to see me as him” (138). Thus Burgoyne as a character is set up to avoid the threatening male power that Scorsoni represents so palpably in A Is for Alibi.

Such a strategy seems reasonable and effective but it leaves two unanswered questions: 1) if Burgoyne is such a lightweight and the sex between them is an exercise, why does V. I. bother to get involved with him at all? and 2) if Burgoyne is not powerful or dangerous in any way, then why does he manage to outsmart V. I. on several occasions, as, for example, when he arranges the theft of crucial evidence from her apartment?

Unlike Kinsey, V. I. never openly questions herself or analyzes why she has become involved with Burgoyne. Perhaps it is not surprising that this most hard-boiled of female detectives seems in all this emotional invulnerability to model herself on her male predecessors.3 Yet elements in the novel make it clear that she cannot quite pull the imitation off. V. I.'s strength depends on her ability to repress or skate over the emotional depths in the situation. But that she cannot fully repress the disturbance that Burgoyne represents is revealed on several levels. Throughout this novel, as well as in many others, V. I. is troubled by disturbing dreams, dreams that reveal the emotions she refuses to claim in her conscious life. In Bitter Medicine whose plot is put in motion by a hospital's mistreatment of a pregnant mother as a result of which both mother and infant die, V. I. significantly has frequent nightmares about a baby. Thus the first time that Burgoyne is admitted as a threat is in a dream where he is seen trying to steal crucial evidence from a baby with V. I.'s name:

I saw Peter Burgoyne come up behind the baby. He grabbed at the folder and tried to take it from her, but her grip was too strong. He let go of the file and began strangling her. She made no sound, but watched me with piteous eyes.

I woke sweating and choking, disoriented.


Another piece of V. I.'s repression is that as she begins to suspect Burgoyne, she begins to experience stomach aches and indigestion. Finally, but only after she has discovered the full extent of Burgoyne's complicity, she admits to her close friend and mother-confidante, Lotte, “Oh yeah, I'm okay. Just a little bruised in the ego. I don't like having affairs with people who are using me. I thought I had better judgement than to let it happen” (227). Lotte responds, “So you're human, Victoria. Is that such a bad thing?” (227) Interestingly, V. I. cannot let even that judgement on her behavior pass. She thinks, “Human, huh? Maybe she was right, maybe not such a bad thing … It sounded good—a page out of Leo Buscaglia. But I didn't believe it” (228).

Why does V. I. feel the need to deny she is human and fallible? The reasons for her repressions are made plain in the plot, for every opponent she has from her ex-husband to the murderer himself will try to use her emotional involvement against her. Her ex-husband, who is the high-priced attorney defending the establishment murderer, counters V. I.'s accusations by saying, “I believe Ms. Warshawski, while a well-meaning investigator, probably got carried away by her emotional involvement with the doctor who unfortunately took his own life earlier today” (250). The murderer also attacks her testimony to the police by emphasizing her personal relationship to Burgoyne: “After all, you're the person who probably saw the most of him the last few weeks” (243). V. I. operates in a world that puts emotion and truth, caring and professionalism, in opposing categories.

Thus it becomes quite clear why V. I. strenuously represses those sides of herself, even to the point of going after Burgoyne and exposing him as the weak link in the chain. But the emotional residue is still present, as with Grafton. At the end of the book the reader learns, by accident and with no commentary or explanation, that V. I. has adopted Burgoyne's dog, Peppy, left homeless after his suicide. In the last scene she is on the beach still denying to Mr. Contreras that she is upset about Burgoyne but playing with Peppy all the while. On the surface, V. I. enacts the traditional hard-boiled detective's typical response to the end of a case—that combination of satisfaction at having asserted personal mastery and post-case exhaustion caused by the unrelenting evil of the world. As V. I. puts it, “By rights I should be on top of the world … So why did I feel wrapped in a cocoon of lethargy, barely able to keep awake?” (258). But the setting—the beach, not some seedy office—the presence of her neighbor, Mr. Contreras, and, most of all, Peppy, suggest there is something else there as well, something that V. I. will not consciously lay claim to. She comments, “I couldn't put my feelings into words” (257). But Mr. Contreras, who always has plenty of words, points out the difference in V. I. She has brought something out of the case that a traditional hard-boiled detective never would have. As Mr. Contreras concludes his summary of the case, he says, “At least, you got a dog” (259). Again, therefore, there is the implication that the relationship has had a permanent impact on the detective's life. V. I.'s continuing denial of this only serves to make it clear how threatening to her sense of herself as a detective that involvement with Burgoyne has been.

Thus we have one basic plot and two contrasting approaches to it. My point is not to argue that one is better than the other, to play Grafton off against Paretsky or vice versa. Each approach has advantages and disadvantages. Grafton's advantage is her frank analysis of the situation, an analysis that shows a certain amount of emotional and intellectual courage. Her disadvantage is that Kinsey may have risked and exposed too much, become too vulnerable. A series detective cannot invest so much emotion in a single case if she hopes to survive. Paretsky's advantage is in her strengthening V. I. to face a system that will exploit a woman's emotions and use them to discredit her if it can. Her disadvantage is that the repressions of emotion that this forces on V. I. will surface, sometimes in unexpected places. What most emerges, however, is the fact that, though each path is different, they reach parallel conclusions. There is in each novel something left over, some overamount, some unassimilated and unassimilatable residue, the loose end that refuses to be tied up. That residue is the mark of sexual difference.


  1. Interestingly, while Nichols and Thompson are in agreement with Klein on some of the basic problems of feminist adaptations of the form, they are at odds in their assessments of the specific examples offered by Grafton and Paretsky. Nichols and Thompson find Grafton's Kinsey Millhone an appealing detective and include their condemnation of the form as a whole in their summary of Paretsky's work. Klein comes to the opposite conclusion, reading Grafton as compromised and Paretsky as successfully undercutting the sexism of the form as a whole.

  2. As James F. Maxfield argues in “Hard-Boiled Dicks and Dangerous Females,” “Such an individual has to believe that he is in control at all times” (109).

  3. Maxfield states that for Dashiell Hammett's hard-boiled detectives “[e]motional vulnerability is a far greater menace than physical vulnerability” and that “sexual desire is possibly the greatest threat to the Hammett hero's invulnerability” (111).

Works Cited

Bakerman, Jane S. “Living ‘Openly and with Dignity’—Sara Paretsky's New Hard-boiled Feminist Fiction.” Mid-America 12 (1985): 120-35.

Geberin, David. Sons of Sam Spade: The Private-Eye Novels in the 70s. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980.

Grafton, Sue. A Is for Alibi. New York: Bantam, 1987.

Klein, Kathleen Gregory. The Woman Detective: Gender and Genre. Urbana: Illinois UP, 1988.

Lehman, David. The Perfect Murder. New York: Free, 1989.

Margolies, Edward. Which Way Did He Go? The Private Eye in Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes, and Ross Macdonald. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1982.

Marling, William. “The Hammett Succubus.” Clues: A Journal of Detection 3.2 (1982): 66-75.

Maxfield, James F. “Hard-Boiled Dicks and Dangerous Females: Sex and Love in the Detective Fiction of Dashiell Hammett.” Clues 6.1 (1985): 107-23.

Nichols, Victoria, and Susan Thompson. Silk Stalkings: When Women Write of Murder. Berkeley: Black Lizard Books, 1988.

Paretsky Sara. Bitter Medicine. New York: Ballantine Books, 1987.

Reddy, Maureen T. Sisters in Crime: Feminism and the Crime Novel. New York: Continuum, 1988.

Maureen Corrigan (review date 17 April 1994)

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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 tracks of anticipation, only to delay rescue till the next installment. Consider the case of Sue Grafton's series featuring Kinsey Millhone. As devoted readers know by rote, Kinsey was orphaned in childhood and raised by her Aunt Gin. But, in last year's “J” Is for Judgment Kinsey discovered she had a hidden hive of relatives just waiting to swarm all over her and coat her with the honey of extended-family affection. At the conclusion of that novel, Kinsey was mulling over what kind of relationship, if any, she wanted to establish with her kin. Consequently, curious Kinsey fans will fling open “K” Is for Killer and race through its pages only to discover … that Kinsey is still mulling over what to do about her relatives. Well, can you blame her? If she encourages contact, she'll be stuck in an inescapable round of family social obligations. It's hard to imagine a cynical loner like Kinsey really enjoying herself at her second-cousin's-once-removed high school graduation party.

Besides the dangling relative dilemma, other factors contribute to making “K” Is for Killer read like a “time out” mystery in the series. For one thing, most of Kinsey's alternative family members have temporarily vanished: her cop pal, Con Dolan, is in the hospital, her lovable landlord, Henry Pitts, is vacationing, and her surly surrogate mom, Rosie, barely grunts a hello. Another isolating feature of “K” Is for Killer is its setting: most of the action takes place during the dead of night. While investigating the life and puzzling death of a beautiful call girl named Lorna Kepler, Kinsey starts keeping call girl's hours. All her night-time prowling takes its toll on Kinsey's familiar wisecracking narrative voice: “I was vaguely aware of a psychological shift, a change in my perception now that I'd substituted night for day. Like a form of jet lag, my internal clock was no longer synchronized with the rest of the world's. My usual sense of myself was breaking down, and I wondered if a hidden personality might suddenly emerge as if wakened from a long sleep.”

Kinsey's descent into darkness begins when Lorna's mother hires her to find out whether Lorna was, in fact, murdered. (When her body was found it was so badly decomposed that the cause of death couldn't be determined.) Confounding Kinsey's investigation are a grim line-up of suspects—including Lorna's father and sisters—who'd prefer to bury their memories of the dead woman six feet under. To balance things out, Kinsey receives some crucial help from a deejay at an all-night radio station and a prostitute named Danielle who gives Kinsey the first decent haircut she's had since this series began. Though her baffled body clock makes her chronically groggy, Kinsey is still alert enough to put up a good fight in the creepy conclusion. But, to be brutally blunt (in the best Kinsey Millhone tradition), plot and character aren't very intricately developed here because they're not the primary focus of this novel. Instead, Grafton seems to want to concentrate on creating an eerie nocturnal mood. “K” Is for Killer is not the Kinsey Millhone mystery you'd recommend to someone who's unfamiliar with the series—it's too idiosyncratic and somber—but, for loyal readers, it'll probably become what the “Nebraska” album is to Bruce Springsteen fans.

Patricia Craig (review date 21 October 1994)

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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, children and home cooking. Kinsey herself—along with Sara Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski—embodies a kind of female virtue which is at the opposite extreme from the housewifely figment contained in the woman's magazine. She and V. I. (Vic) Warshawski are not themselves any less the products of fantasy—but the fantasy they come from is rather more robust to begin with. As private eyes, they pit themselves against corruption in society, and come out strongly upholding decency and order, as criminal investigations in fiction have always done. They stand to the fullest extent for freedom of action, being without personal encumbrances or restraints of any kind. They are conspicuously in control of their own lives—and they control the course of justice. Kinsey Millhone, in the current alphabetical investigation—eleven down, fifteen to go—is out to catch a killer of a high-grade hooker and performer in a pornographic film, whose death took place ten months before the novel opens. The dwindling trail takes Kinsey into the company of a lot of people of varying degrees of disagreeableness. At several points in the narrative, it nearly peters out altogether. However, Kinsey is nothing if not single-minded in her pursuit of novels have claimed many freedoms for themselves—including the freedom to get their clothes in a shocking state, to be as obstinate and authoritative as the case requires, and to stand up to repeated rough handling. In Tunnel Vision, Vic wakes up in hospital with a bashed head, promptly staggers out of bed to get herself arrested as an illegal immigrant, and is no sooner out of that predicament than she's grubbing about in the Chicago sewers, beset by rats, on the trial of a homeless family, a mother and three children, one of them in the throes of an asthmatic attack. You can't complain about lack of incident in these adventures.

Patricia D. Cornwell's The Body Farm adds an exhumation to the set-piece autopsies which decorate the Dr Kay Scarpetta mysteries (five to date). Dr Scarpetta is the Chief Medical Examiner of Virginia, who takes apart the bodies of victims in order to piece together the elements of a crime, and does it all with considerable suavity and skill. The current case features a murdered eleven-year-old as well as an apparent episode of autoerotic asphyxiation and, just to keep things on the boil, the heroine's clever niece, Lucy, (the schoolgirl computer expert of earlier novels) has grown into an alcoholic lesbian with an uningratiating attitude towards her aunt. The attempted murder of the heroine isn't a success, and a bad case of criminal derangement doesn't go undetected. There are one or two non sequiturs in this novel, which never quite matches up to the vigour of the Grafton and Paretsky books. However, it is densely plotted, diverting and makes the most of its inspiriting impossibilities.

Emily Melton (review date July 1995)

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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 quality. This time [in “L” Is for Lawless] the plot sounds slightly contrived, the writing is a little tired, and Kinsey's spunky earthiness is sometimes grating, The action centers on Kinsey tracking down half-a-million dollars from a decades-old bank heist carried out by a motley trio: Johnny, now dead, Gilbert, a very much alive psychopath, and mild-mannered Ray, the only one of the trio to have done time for the robbery. Ray and his daughter, Laura—a true bimbo—have involved Kinsey in a high-stakes treasure hunt for the loot. Johnny has left a series of cryptic clues behind, but with psycho Gilbert hot on the trail, too, Ray, Laura, and Kinsey figure it's only a matter of time before he finds them and the money. There's harrowing cross-country chase, plenty of double-crossing shenanigans, an eccentric granny who's proficient with a Louisville Slugger, and a surprising ending. Flaws? Definitely, but Kinsey's irrepressible, irresponsible, still lovable charm shines through vividly enough to keep her old fans, if not win many new ones.

Richard Lipez (review date 17 September 1995)

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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 stopovers in the Mid-South and back. Readers might favor, by a hair, an amusingly anti-human corporate hotel near the Dallas-Fort Worth airport to the backroad roach motels Millhone becomes intimate with en route to Louisville. But part of Millhone's crazy charm is that her preference is likely to go the other way, by a hair.

The friend of a friend who asks Millhone for help is a friend of her elderly landlord, Henry Pitts. Millhone is eagerly looking forward to the upcoming wedding of two octogenarian chums, so she's reluctant to take time out to solve the mystery—for no fee—of why the federal government is refusing to pay burial benefits to the family of World War II vet John Lee. He carefully left the impression among his survivors that he was a secret agent for the Allies in Burma, but some of them suspect he was a Japanese spy. The truth is more mundane, with criminal roots dating back to 1941, and much closer to home.

Grafton is characteristically fanciful in “L” Is for Lawless in the way she casts Millhone off, Nancy Drew-like, into the treacherous Middle-American unknown. Grafton's fans can always count on Millhone finding herself suddenly far from home with little to sustain her beyond her wits and the knowledge that she always carries a change of underwear. You see it coming every time and have to laugh. In this one, Millhone follows two shady characters from John Lee's past out to the local airport, and all of a sudden she's hurtling across the continent, astonished at herself but game as ever.

Millhone does make it back to California in time for her old pals’ wedding, but not before riskily encountering additional disturbed characters out of John Lee's distant, problematical past. One of them has a Kentucky mother whom Millhone finds perfectly adorable. She figures that the old lady's nickname, “Hell on Wheels,” is a jokey endearment until granny raises a shotgun at somebody and takes aim through her cataracts.

Scott Christianson (essay date 1995)

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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 other parts of her antagonists’ anatomies in the true tradition of hard-boiled detective fiction. Like her many male counterparts—Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer, and Spenser—Millhone attempts to order her chaotic and violent experience in a careful narrative which, above all, tries to remain true to her experience even when she cannot make sense of what exactly is happening to her. She talks dirty, she talks tough, and she talks smart as she moves through a diverse cultural milieu in which she—a working-class woman—figures all too often as an outsider, an ‘other.’ Unlike her male counterparts, however, Kinsey Millhone seldom relies on a dominant rhetorical device in hard-boiled narrative: the ‘hard-boiled conceit,’ the kind of poignant metaphor or simile which peppers the writings of Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, and Robert B. Parker as frequently as bullets and shots of booze. Millhone nevertheless reveals a similar ‘complex sensibility’ which is at once hard-boiled, feminist, and working class. Unlike several contemporary women (and men) detective novelists, Grafton is not an academic slumming in the streets of popular culture and social activism, and her detective Millhone is neither a pampered amateur solving crimes for fun nor a fantasized idealist saving the world through political correctness. Millhone is a flawed realist: joyfully single and lonely at times, sexually active in between long spells of celibacy, a liar by choice and habit who struggles to tell the truth about herself and her experience. Sue Grafton uses language to gain a little power within a patriarchal culture which still denies it to women, minorities, and members of the working class.

As hundreds of books and articles testify, the study of ‘popular’ as distinct from ‘serious’ fiction requires no defence—which is not to deny the historical and theoretical significance of the marginalization of popular fiction, which over the centuries has been written overwhelmingly by women. What deserves mention, however, is that popular fiction is definitively generic. Formerly an indictment of all popular fiction, the title ‘generic,’ or ‘genre fiction,’ can actually be seen as one of its more critically valuable features. Contrary to ‘popular’ belief—in this case, the belief of critics preferring ‘high’ or ‘serious’ culture—readers of popular fiction are critically comparative readers. For whatever reasons and with whatever outcomes, readers of popular fiction are highly cognizant of the forms and conventions of the genres they read. Far from the limited view that such readers will tolerate only those works which ‘correctly’ conform to the rules of formation of their favoured genres, the proliferation and development of popular fictional genres suggests that playing off and even violating norms of genres are essential aspects of reader enjoyment. The popularity of Sue Grafton, as well as of Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller, and other women writing within the specific genre of hard-boiled detective fiction, suggests that much of the pleasure derived from such works by women writers arises from comparisons made with traditional (and male) norms. Thus, what some feminist critics have often demanded but seldom got, a ‘radical comparativism, in which texts by male and female authors working within the same historical conditions and genres are set against each other’ (Showalter 5), has been a consistent feature in the writing and reading of women's hard-boiled detective fiction.2


In an Armchair Detective interview from 1989, Sue Grafton says, ‘When I decided to do mysteries, I chose the classic private eye genre because I like playing hardball with the boys’ (Taylor 12). I will be ranging over all nine Kinsey Millhone novels published to date (1992) and attempting to let Grafton teach me to read as a feminist, to see the world of her novels through her feminist perspective.3 For as the affirms in the 1989 interview, ‘I am a feminist from way back’ (11). Grafton plays hardball with the boys through her appropriation of hard-boiled language—her use of tough talk and wisecracks—and in the process transforms the classic private eye genre into a place from which a woman can exercise language as power.

The distinguishing feature of the hard-boiled detective genre of fiction since its inception has been its language. As Dennis Porter observes, ‘The language chosen is a mode of address, a style of self-presentation, and an affirmation of American manliness’ (139). Porter is writing about Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and does not discuss women hard-boiled writers, of whom there were not many in 1981, and who obviously are not concerned with affirming ‘American manliness’; but his focus on language as mode of address—how and to whom one is speaking—and style of self-presentation—who is speaking, the kind of person narrating—is important. With few exceptions, hard-boiled detective stories—novels and short stories—speak in the first person. The narrator is the hard-boiled detective him herself, who talks all the time to the reader in direct, evocative, colloquial language that represents the hard-boiled hallmark of the genre. Hard-boiled language or style is a generically distinctive combination of active verbs and fast-moving prose, of tough talk, wisecracks, and the often crude vernacular or colloquial idiom familiar to readers of the hard-boiled tradition, who will recognize its deployment in Grafton's novels.

Through Kinsey Millhone, Grafton comments self-referentially on a mode of address and exhibits in microcosm her hard-boiled style of self-presentation. In ‘B’ Is for Burglar, the second novel in the alphabetical series, Kinsey Millhone writes, ‘I start by asserting who I am and what I do, as though by stating the same few basic facts I can make sense out of everything that comes afterward’ (1). In ‘A’ Is for Alibi at the outset of the series, we learn that who she is is a private investigator who has recently killed somebody, and that the subsequent narrative is her attempt to sort through that experience since the official reports don't say ‘quite enough’ (1). Seven of the nine novels begin in the same way, and all tell us early on who Kinsey Millhone is and what she does. Interestingly, in only the first three novels does Grafton have Millhone comment directly on why she is writing her narrative: in the first two, as we have seen, to make sense of her experience; in the third, ‘C’ Is for Corpse, for that reason and as a memorial and final full report to her dead client, Bobby Callahan. We are apparently supposed to read the novels as elaborated case reports, suspending our disbelief that so long a narrative should be written to serve that professional purpose. Subsequent novels do not try to maintain this ‘fiction,’ and like most hard-boiled detective novels they assume that readers do not need a firmer anchor in ‘reality’ for such long-winded ‘reports.’ The important point is that these long first-person narratives have been ‘written’ by Kinsey Millhone as an attempt to make sense of her experience, and that the first three novels self-consciously and self-referentially acknowledge that fact.

Overwhelmingly in hard-boiled narratives, the style of self-presentation and language is tough—tough-talking and tough-minded. A character in Hammett's Red Harvest describes the Continental Op: ‘You're a great talker … A two-fisted, you-be-damned man with your words. But have you got anything else? Have you got the guts to match your gall? Or is it just the language you've got?’ (Hammett 9).4 The hard-boiled detective/narrator always has the guts to match his or her gall, as readers familiar with the genre know. He or she talks tough, talks smart, and talks all the time to the reader in an attempt to assert personal autonomy, to make sense of experience, and to exercise language as power. Tough talk is a prominent feature of the hard-boiled style and is an important, character-defining element in Grafton's narratives. Like her male counterparts, Kinsey Millhone talks tough as an exercise of power—the power to express her emotions and sensibilities, and power over situations and circumstances.

Kinsey Millhone talks tough, and occasionally she backs up the tough talk with violence or the promise of violence—a promise, we are made aware, she is able to keep.5 A vivid example is found in ‘H’ Is for Homicide, when Kinsey—after chasing down a violent criminal who has essentially held her hostage for days and just shot her close friend from childhood—lands with her knees on his back, gun drawn: ‘He turned over as I raised the barrel of the gun and placed it between his eyes. Raymond had his hands up, inching away from me. For ten cents I would have blown that motherfucker away. My rage was white hot and I was out of control, screaming “I'll kill your ass! I'll kill your ass, you son of a bitch!”’ (285). This is literally tough talk with a vengeance, the link between the talk and the violence, in Kinsey's word, ‘white hot’ and apparent. Similarly, in ‘G’ Is for Gumshoe, Kinsey has been toyed with and threatened by a hit man contracted to kill her; although seriously afraid for her life—and not afraid to admit she needs the protection of the (male) bodyguard she has not-quite-hired to protect her—she tells him: ‘Lighten up and let's figure out some way to kill his ass. I hate chickenshit guys trying to shoot me. Let's get him first’ (211). The tough talk here shows toughness to be a combination of tough-mindedness in the face of physical danger, a willingness to exercise violence if necessary, and both vulgarity and a sense of humour. ‘Lighten up,’ she tells her bodyguard, not exactly in a situation which calls for that laid-back phrase. ‘I hate chickenshit guys trying to shoot me,’ she says with humorous vulgarity and matter-of-factness, as if it happens all the time and is merely annoying. The blend of vulgarity, humour, and toughness is characteristic of hard-boiled language or tough talk.

As noted earlier, we know from the outset of the series that Kinsey's tough talk is ultimately backed up by the promise of violence: she announces in the third sentence of ‘A’ Is for Alibi that she killed someone, and in typically hard-boiled style she is matter-of-fact about it, bringing into the same first paragraph details about who, how, and where she lives. That novel closes, prior to the epilogue, with Kinsey killing the murderer from a garbage can in which she is hiding from him; as he lifts the lid, peering down at her, she sees a butcher knife in his hand and writes, ‘I blew him away’ (214). In the most recent installment, ‘I’ Is for Innocent Kinsey is shot by the murderer near the end of the novel yet bravely talks to her would-be killer about his crimes as she tries to figure out how to kill him first; as the killer discovers her hiding place in the deserted office, he says, clowningly, ‘Are you prepared to die?’—to which she responds, in characteristic hard-boiled style, ‘I wouldn't say prepared exactly, but I wouldn't be surprised.’ ‘How about you?’ she asks, ‘Surprised?’ With that, Kinsey writes, ‘I fired at him point-blank and then studied the effect’ (282). My point is that the ‘posture promising violence’ is established from the outset and figures throughout the series. Kinsey Millhone's ‘tough talk’ is ‘of the kind’ of hard-boiled language found throughout the genre.

If talking tough is one way of exercising ‘language as power’—over one's self in violent situations, and over one's antagonist as the threat or overture to violence—the hard-boiled detective has also invariably talked smart through glibness, humour, and wisecracks. Again, Kinsey Millhone is no exception. In ‘I’ Is for Innocent as just discussed, Kinsey keeps up a patter of glib talk, along with the tough talk, with her would-be killer, and at one point she cracks wise in response to his philosophizing about killing people, who, he claims, are no more than ants: ‘Jesus,’ Kinsey says, ‘This is really profound. I'm taking notes over here’ (279). Similarly, albeit in a non-violent situation in the first novel, Kinsey wisecracks to an unresponsive witness, ‘Try to keep your answers short so I can get ‘em on one line’ (‘A’ [‘A’ Is for Alibi] 107). A wisecrack is a characteristic remark from a ‘wise guy’—as Dennis Porter says, ‘someone who is no respecter of authority, wealth, power, social standing, or institutions’ (166). A fundamental feature in Chandler's style, according to Porter, the wisecrack is also ‘an ideal form of the vernacular characterized by its tough mindedness and its terseness’ which figures throughout the hard-boiled genre (166). It is usually reserved, in hard-boiled fiction, for dialogue, for presentation to an audience who will fail to appreciate it. But it is linked with vulgar language and humour generally, as aspects of hard-boiled language which reveal the narrator's complex sensibility and attitude towards experience.

Porter calls the wisecrack, specifically, ‘the maxim of the American working classes’ which ‘combines at its level the quintessence of style with the body of wisdom’ (144), but I think wisecracks join vulgar language and humour to provide that function in hard-boiled fiction. It's all humorous smart talk from a ‘smart alec’ who doesn't respect convention or authority. Kinsey Millhone cracks wise, from time to time, as we have seen. She also makes humorous observations about things which, though not technically wisecracks, contribute to the hard-boiled style of her language in similar ways. In ‘D’ Is for Deadbeat, Kinsey writes, ‘Even with low-heeled pumps, my feet hurt and my pantyhose made me feel like I was walking around with a hot, moist hand in my crotch’ (138). Remembering summer camp as a child—a less than positive experience—Kinsey details: ‘The horses were big and covered with flies, hot straw baseballs coming out their butts at intervals … Nature turned out to be straight uphill, dusty and hot and itchy. The part that wasn't dry and tiresome was even worse’ (‘H’ [‘H’ Is for Homicide] 240). Apparently horses made a big impression on Kinsey, for in the next novel she comments, about the stable she is in, ‘The air smelled faintly musty, a blend of straw, dampness, and the various by-products of horse butts’ (‘I’ [‘I’ Is for Innocent] 153). Like the wisecrack proper, such remarks are maxim-like, relying for their effects, in Porter's words, on ‘the shock of the vernacular’ (but not, as he claims, on ‘cynical irreverence,’ though irreverent they certainly are) (144). They reveal a sensibility that is not only irreverent but humorously thoughtful—which insists that thoughtfulness is not monopolized by the higher classes or their more highfalutin, proper language. About the inadequacy of her report to the attorney employing her to prove his case in ‘I’ Is for Innocent, Kinsey reflects philosophically, ‘Small comfort to an attorney who could end up in court with nothing in his hand but his dick’ (98). The remark not only conveys knowledge of what lawyers need in court but offers an oblique and vulgar comment on what they usually rely on.

The wisecrack and related humorous, maxim-like remarks help reveal the hard-boiled narrator's complex sensibility—a streetwise knowledge-ability about the world and its workings combined with the verbal facility to encapsulate that knowledge in pithy, humorous utterances. In other words, we are talking about language as a form of power to articulate a complex understanding about and attitude towards experience. The wisecrack and related forms are similar to but definitely not synonymous with another rhetorical device, one which, as I have claimed elsewhere, is the feature of hard-boiled language which becomes a structuring device of great importance in much hard-boiled language which becomes a structuring device of great importance in much hard-boiled fiction. That device I call the ‘hard-boiled conceit,’ a particularly pointed or extended metaphor or simile which is usually serious, and which is spoken to the reader directly to convey the detective/narrator's complex sensibility. On this functioning of the hard-boiled conceit, I disagree with Porter, who conflates it with the wisecrack and, while acknowledging that it structures the hard-boiled detective novel (144), limits its significance to a ‘digressive effect,’ an example of Barthes's ‘playful excess’ enjoyed only at ‘the level of pure language.’6 I contend that the hard-boiled conceit is a more serious and evocative device used by the narrator to communicate his complex sensibility directly to the reader.

First, some examples from the male tradition. From Chandler alone, Porter provides a lengthy list: ‘nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men’ (64); hair ‘like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock’; ‘lower than a badger's balls’; ‘smart as a hole through nothing’; ‘a face like a collapsed lung’; ‘a mouth like a wilted lettuce’ (66). Not found in Chandler alone, the hard-boiled conceit appears throughout the tradition. In Robert B. Parker's latest novel, Double Deuce, Parker has Spenser ‘set up’ a hard-boiled conceit describing a housing project through a parody of the smart talk of a different—and ‘higher’—class of people: ‘The urban planners who had built it to rescue the poor from the consequences of their indolence had fashioned it of materials calculated to endure the known propensity of the poor to ungraciously damage the abodes so generously provided them’ (24). Hard-boiled PI Spenser then offers the hard-boiled conceit describing the housing project: ‘Everything was brick and cement and cinderblock and asphalt and metal. Except the windows. The place had all the warmth of a cyanide factory’ (245). The final line is delivered like a punch-line for the reader alone, carefully prepared for first by the high-falutin language parody, then by the terse descriptive language also characteristic of the hard-boiled style.

In Sue Grafton's novels, we find metaphors and similes—often, I have noticed, animal-related—but only occasionally a full-blown hard-boiled conceit. In ‘C’ Is for Corpse, Kinsey describes the hospital morgue: ‘The temperature was cool and the air was scented with formaldehyde, that acrid deodorant for the deceased’ (71). The closing metaphor has the vivid, maxim-like quality of the hard-boiled conceit. Locating an aged missing person in a nursing home in ‘G’ Is for Gumshoe, Kinsey observes that ‘the truncated shape of her skull gave her the look of some long-legged, gangly bird with a gaping beak. She was squawking like an ostrich, her bright, black eyes snapping from point to point’ (60). Here we have the extended metaphor, another version of the hard-boiled conceit, which links with a briefer version on the following page. When the commotion in the ward finally awakens two other elderly patients, Kinsey notes that they ‘woke up and began to make quacking sounds’ (61). Later in the same novel, Kinsey compares herself to the attractive ex-wife of the hitman contracted to kill Kinsey: ‘In her presence, I felt as dainty and feminine as a side of beef. When I opened my mouth, I was worried I would moo’ (290). Humorously, Kinsey here worries that the hard-boiled conceit—the simile comparing her to a side of beef—will become literal reality. As these few examples show, Grafton appropriates an important feature of hard-boiled language style, though generally the hard-boiled conceit figures much less prominently in her hard-boiled style than it does in that of male practitioners of the genre (especially Chandler, Macdonald, and Parker). Nevertheless, this feature of Grafton's style demonstrates—as do the examples of tough talk and wisecracks—that she is aware of the linguistic conventions of the genre, and more important, that she adopts the hard-boiled style in order to accomplish what she has affirmed is her goal in writing mystery novels: ‘What I hope to do is engage in a kind of truth-telling about what I see’ (Taylor 12). Such truth-telling, of course, represents an important use of language as power in Grafton's novels, and throughout hard-boiled detective fiction.

The desire or intent to ‘engage in a kind of truth-telling’ about what one sees accounts in Grafton's novels for a final kind of hard-boiled ‘smart’ talk found throughout the genre. Grafton herself has observed, ‘I view the mystery novel as a vantage point from which to observe the world we live in’ (Taylor 12). An integral part of Grafton's use of language, found throughout the hard-boiled genre, is a form of philosophical commentary that counterpoints the tough talk, wisecracks, humour, and vulgarity. In ‘C’ Is for Corpse, we can see the counterpoint in action. Following the death (later revealed to be murder) of her client, Kinsey expresses her grief in a quick sequence that constitutes a hard-boiled conceit: ‘Something in her face spilled over me like light through a swinging door. Sorrow shot through the gap, catching me off-guard, and I burst into tears’ (88). That comment ends a chapter, and the first sentence of the next chapter reads, ‘Everything happens for a reason, but that doesn't mean there's a point’ (89). The sentence is clearly a maxim, and the two contractions enhance the colloquial style; it is direct and poignant, especially following immediately the more emotional and verbally evocative hard-boiled conceit.

One other example must suffice to detail this stylistic feature found throughout Grafton's novels. In ‘I’ Is for Innocent, Kinsey writes something like a hard-boiled conceit but, I think, discernibly different—perhaps more philosophical than hard-boiled. She is describing a woman she has just arrived to interview, and the description leads purposefully up to the philosophical comment:

Francesca was tall, very slender, with short-cropped brown hair and a chiselled face. She had high cheekbones, a strong jawline, a long straight nose, and a pouting mouth with a pronounced upper lip. She wore loose white pants of some beautifully draped material, with a long peach tunic top that she had belted in heavy leather. Her hands were slender, her fingers long, her nails tapered and polished. She wore a series of heavy silver bracelets that clanked together on her wrists like chains, confirming my suspicion that glamour is a burden only beautiful women are strong enough to bear. She looked like she would smell of lilac or newly peeled oranges.


The description of Francesca is subtly elaborate, like Francesca's carefully constructed appearance, and leads to the punch-line, which, I think, is not as ‘punchy’ as such lines can often be in hard-boiled narrative. The maxim is neither cynical nor resentful but conveys a matter-of-fact truthfulness. Only a page later, the ‘strong enough to bear’ is recast in more powerful terms: Francesca explains that she got into designing headwear for cancer patients—the activity she engages in while talking to Kinsey—during her own battle with breast cancer two years previously. Francesca reveals her own brand of toughness: ‘One morning in the shower, all my hair fell out in clumps. I had a lunch date in an hour and there I was, bald as an egg. I improvised one of these from a scarf I had on hand, but it was not a great success. Synthetics don't adhere well to skulls as smooth as glass’ (155). Commenting on how this got her started in business, Francesca delivers a maxim of her own: ‘Tragedy can turn your life around if you're open to it.’ She then asks Kinsey, ‘Have you ever been seriously ill?’ to which Kinsey (sort of) wisecracks: ‘I've been beaten up. Does that count?’ Kinsey observes: ‘She didn't respond with the usual exclamations of surprise or distaste. Given what she'd been through, merely being punched out must have been an easy fix’ (155).


I have discussed the foregoing scene at length because it offers, in microcosm, the distinctive and original quality of Grafton's hard-boiled style, and I will return to this scene shortly. To this point in my analysis of that style, I have pointedly not referred to Grafton's ‘feminism.’ I have tried to show that Grafton's style is ‘of the kind’ of hard-boiled language found in the male-dominated portion of the tradition. My position differs from that of other critics, who feel that Grafton's style or voice is unlike ‘the cynical, detached one typical of male creators of hard-boiled novels,’ that the similarities are superficial, or that any similarity of language is merely a ‘digressive effect’ which does not offset the basic ideological difference between Grafton's hard-boiled novels and the male-dominated genre of hard-boiled detective fiction (Reddy Sisters 120).7 Generally, the view seems to be either that Grafton essentially transforms the hard-boiled style or genre for her feminist purposes, or that her feminism is vitiated by her appropriation of generic characteristics inherently marked by the male gender and its hard-boiled ideology. In my view, Grafton appropriates hard-boiled language for feminist purposes as an exercise of language as power; in Foucauldian terms, she seizes the ‘rules of formation’ for the ‘discourse’ of hard-boiled fiction, thereby occupying a space or ‘subject position,’ formerly reserved for men only, from which she may speak with power as a woman. In plainer terms—offered by Grafton herself—she plays hardball with the boys, on what had been their own turf. To claim otherwise, I believe, is to deny Grafton her sense of what she is doing in her novels, and to enforce a narrowly ‘essentialist’ notion of feminism as the only feminism that really counts.8

To return to the scene between Kinsey and Francesca: without making Francesca hard-boiled—I have already demonstrated the difference in style between the two women—Grafton reveals her to be as tough in her own way as Kinsey is in hers. As a perceptive feminist observed to me, ‘Toughness is being willing to do the hard stuff no matter how hard it is to do’ (Huber). We have seen Kinsey humorously remark, ‘Glamour is a burden only beautiful women are strong enough to bear.’ As the scene unfolds, we learn that glamour had indeed been a burden Francesca had had to bear—her identity had been almost exclusively defined by her beauty, and by her need to use it to attract a husband who remained infatuated with his previous wife. Facing the assault on life—as well as beauty—of breast cancer, Francesca made the symbolic gesture of designing a turban to cover her bald head, fighting first for beauty but turning that fight into self-actualization. She tells Kinsey she will probably leave her husband: ‘Now I realize my happiness has nothing to do with him … I woke up one morning and realized I was out of control’ (157). She says a page later, about her whole life, ‘I woke up one day and thought, What am I doing?’ (158). Now she has begun to see with ‘great clarity’: ‘It's like being nearsighted and suddenly getting prescription lenses. It's all so much clearer it's astonishing’ (160).

Waking up and seeing more clearly, I think Grafton is saying, is possible for women in the world now. Doing the hard stuff no matter how hard it is to do is the real measure of toughness, not just macho posturing, backing up the tough talk with a posture promising violence. Grafton problematizes hard-boiled toughness throughout her novels—which is not to say that she radically transforms male hard-boiled attitudes and languages or manages to avoid them altogether. She appropriates hard-boiled style and works through it to articulate her own brand of feminism. Throughout her narratives, Kinsey Millhone reflects on what it means to be tough. In ‘A’ Is for Alibi, as we have seen, she voices her struggle with having killed a man. In ‘B’ Is for Burglar, she discusses that killing briefly with her octogenarian landlord, Henry Pitts, and tries out the self-justifying posture of someone unwilling to be a victim any more; but as Henry points out to her, and as she agrees, trying to turn the killing into a philosophical statement just doesn't ring true, and Kinsey notes the surprising unsureness in her voice as she asks, ‘I'm still a good person, aren't I?’ (77). The point isn't that Kinsey denies that there are victims, and that they are often women victimized by men, but that she is willing to explore what it means to be tough and hard-boiled. In ‘E’ Is for Evidence, her integrity as an investigator is being challenged by an accusation of her complicity in insurance fraud; the people she must investigate—and with whom she is implicated—are of a much higher class, and her dealings with them leave her disconcerted; she is caught in a power game in which she doesn't know the rules, and which causes her to question her strength and integrity—all exacerbated by her solitary personal life, which has left her completely alone at the holidays. She soliloquizes: ‘It's not my style to be lonely or to lament, even for a moment, my independent state. I like being single. I like being by myself. I find solitude healing and I have a dozen ways to feel amused. The problem was I couldn't think of one. I won't admit to depression, but I was in bed by 8:00 p.m. … not cool for a hard-assed private eye waging a one-woman war against the bad guys everywhere’ (63). Or as she writes in ‘I’ Is for Innocence, ‘I wanted to feel like the old Kinsey again … talkin’ trash and kickin’ butt. Being cowed and uncertain was really for the birds’ (221). She is a hard-assed private eye, she is tough—tough-talking, tough-minded, willing to do the hard stuff—but she is also willing to explore her toughness as she explores, generally, her autonomy, her existence as a woman in a male-dominated profession in a male-dominated world.

Hard-boiled language is a matter of voice, and Grafton makes the hard-boiled voice her own. Grafton acknowledges: ‘Voice is a big issue. Until I found the right voice for Kinsey Millhone, I wasn't in business. Voice is about gettin’ connected to your stuff. A sense of authenticity or truth. A writer's voice is that unique blend of viewpoint and language that echoes a writer's soul, if that doesn't sound too lofty or pretentious’ (Taylor 10). Kinsey Millhone's voice, talking non-stop through nine novels, represents ‘a blend of viewpoint and language’ which is discernibly ‘hard-boiled’ at the same time it is individual; in other words, it is ‘of the kind’ of voice or language found throughout the hard-boiled genre even as it is distinctive, original.

According to Porter, the language style of the genre allows for ‘a perfect match between language and behavior, speech and ethics’ (138), and he claims further that it represents what V. N. Voloshinov calls ‘behavioral ideology,’ which, in the case of hard-boiled detective fiction, Porter interprets as ‘an affirmation of American manliness’ against—specifically—English gentility, formality, and high culture (139). As Porter says in relation to hard-boiled fiction, ‘In a novel, speech makes the man who is offered up for the reader's evaluation’ (138-9). Seemingly contradicting Grafton's claim that ‘voice’ is a matter of finding a style to match the writer's soul, Porter—through Voloshinov—asserts that speech or voice ‘makes the man’ in hard-boiled detective fiction.

Obviously problematical here is Porter's assumption that the hard-boiled style is definitively male. In fairness to Porter, he does not discuss women writers within the genre, and he is writing specifically about its originators, Hammett and Chandler. But his close linking of ‘voice’ or speech with ‘behavioral ideology’—‘that atmosphere of unsystematized and unfixed inner and outer speech which endows every instance of behavior and action and our every conscious state with meaning’ (139)9—must give us pause as we analyse the voice of a hard-boiled narrator whose speech does not, literally, ‘make the man.’ The implication of Porter's formulation, his linkage of voice and ideology, must be either that adoption of the hard-boiled voice makes the female detective/narrator a man, or that a female narrator is proscribed from adopting such a voice, such a gender-marked style of language and self-presentation. In short, with the female hard-boiled narrator we have either a case of cross-dressing or a style which cannot, by definition, be hard-boiled. In my view, neither implication or conclusion is applicable to the novels of Sue Grafton.

Let me return briefly to Voloshinov, whose ‘constructionist’ position—that individual consciousness is a social structure, rather than innate—is close to the poststructuralist view that consciousness is structured like and by language.10 Writers, it seems to me, are generally pretty resistant to such a formulation, and Grafton seems to be no exception when she claims that ‘voice’ is ‘that unique blend of viewpoint and language that echoes a writer's soul.’ Voloshinov actually writes that ‘it is a matter not so much of expression accommodating itself to our inner world but rather of our inner world accommodating itself to the potentialities of our expression, its possible routes and directions’ (91; italics in original). For my purposes, I am going to seize on the equivocal nature of Voloshinov's statement: ‘it is a matter not so much of.’ While asserting that we accommodate our inner world to ‘the potentialities of our expression’—to a style of self-presentation through language—Voloshinov's equivocation indicates that we do not exclusively do so. In plainer terms, we not only form ourselves according to the forms of expression available to us but, reciprocally, form our expression according to who we are. That my own formulation is in keeping with Voloshinov's is seen in his affirmation that individual consciousness which has entered ‘into the power system of science, art, ethics, or law’ becomes ‘a real force’ for change in the world. In Grafton's fiction, her adoption of the hard-boiled style allows her to pursue ‘possible routes and directions’ in the production of a distinctive ‘voice’ that, in turn, transforms the style into something unique and feminist.

This first-person exercise of language as power, I contend, works in a way described by the anti-essentialist feminist Monique Wittig. At this point I want to address how, in theoretical terms, Sue Grafton teaches me to read as a feminist.

For when one becomes a locutor, when one says ‘I’ and, in so doing, reappropriates language as a whole, proceeding from oneself alone, with the tremendous power to use all language, it is then and there, according to linguists and philosophers, that the supreme act of subjectivity, the advent of subjectivity into consciousness, occurs. It is when starting to speak that one becomes ‘I.’ This act—the becoming of the subject through the exercise of language and through locution—in order to be real, implies that the locutor be an absolute subject … I mean that in spite of the harsh law of gender and its enforcement upon women, no woman can say ‘I’ without being for herself a total subject—that is, ungendered, universal, whole.

(Wittig 80)

Against ‘essentialist’ theories that predicate distinctive ‘women's ways of knowing,’ Wittig insists, with Simone de Beauvoir, that ‘one is not born a woman’ (9 ff.). Yet, while ‘language as a whole gives everyone the same power of becoming an absolute subject through its exercise,’ gender works ‘to annul it as far as women are concerned and corresponds to a constant attempt to strip them of the most precious thing for a human being—subjectivity … The result of the imposition of gender, acting as a denial at the very moment when one speaks, is to deprive women of the authority of speech’ (80-1). Wittig's conclusion: ‘Gender then must be destroyed. The possibility of its destruction is given through the very exercise of language. For each time I say ‘I,’ I reorganize the world from my point of view and through abstraction I lay claim to universality. This fact holds true for every locutor’ (81).

Glenwood Irons has described Sue Grafton's hard-boiled fiction as ‘gender-bending’ and has claimed that ‘Grafton actually reinvents the “rugged individual”—as woman’ (‘New Women Detectives’ 135).11 If we follow Wittig's formulation, I think we must perceive Grafton's hard-boiled feminism as ‘gender-busting.’ Through the hard-boiled voice of her narrator, Grafton inserts Kinsey Millhone into the position of locutor who, through her point of view and through abstraction, can lay claim to universality and can become ‘a total subject—that is, ungendered, universal, whole.’ However much this is a ‘fiction,’ and however challenged ‘universal subjectivity’ has been by poststructuralist thinking, I respond to Kinsey Millhone as if this is what happens in her narratives. To conflate my terms with Wittig's, Grafton—through Kinsey Millhone—exercises hard-boiled language as power in order to become an absolute subject; it is through speaking non-stop to the reader in hard-boiled language that Kinsey Millhone becomes an ‘I.’ She attains, in Wittig's terms, the ‘most precious thing for a human being—subjectivity.’ Grafton accomplishes what Carolyn G. Heilbrun demanded of women writers over twelve years ago: ‘We must ask women writers to give us, finally, female characters who are complex, whole, and independent—fully human’ (Heilbrun 34).12 Significantly, as I have shown, she accomplishes this on the turf of hard-boiled detective fiction, playing hardball with the boys.

Heilbrun contends: ‘Woman has too long been content to accept as fundamental the dependent condition of her sex. We avoid aggressive behavior, fear autonomy, feel incomplete without the social status only a man can bestow’ (29). The result has been a relative handful of successful women who have actually been ‘honorary men,’ who have succeeded by ‘preserving the socially required “femininity,” but sacrificing their womanhood’ (29). As my discussion of her hard-boiled voice has shown, Kinsey Millhone does not avoid aggressive behavior (though she problematizes, not celebrates, it); she explores autonomy; and she does not feel incomplete without a man (though she is not averse to having a good one around, like the bodyguard Robert Dietz in ‘G’ Is for Gumshoe). Most important, Kinsey Millhone is not an ‘honorary man’ in Heilbrun's terms. Finally, Grafton teaches me to read as a feminist by having Kinsey Millhone explore what it means to be a woman with the emphasis on a woman, who happens to be a hard-boiled private detective.

In Reinventing Womanhood, Heilbrun observes that she learned from her mother ‘the importance of autonomy for women,’ and she goes on to describe her mother's ‘lasting gift’ and ‘remarkably clear’ message: ‘Be independent, make your own way, do not pay with your selfhood for male admiration and approval: the price is too high’ (16-17). In ‘D’ Is for Deadbeat, Kinsey describes what she learned from the aunt who raised her after her parents died in a car crash: ‘Rule Number One, first and foremost, above and beyond all else, was financial independence. A woman should never, never, never be financially dependent on anyone, especially a man, because the minute you were dependent, you could be abused … Any feminine pursuit that did not have as its ultimate goal increased self-sufficiency could be disregarded. “How to Get Your Man” didn't even appear on the list’ (107-8). The similarities between the advice given Heilbrun by her mother and the advice given Kinsey by her aunt are unmistakable. Grafton echoes Heilbrun, which should not be surprising from a self-proclaimed feminist who has probably read this feminist scholar who is also the detective novelist Amanda Cross. Grafton, in short, accomplishes Heilbrun's dictum ‘Womanhood must be reinvented.’ Grafton approaches the writing of detective fiction as an opportunity to reinvent herself; as she says in the Armchair Detective interview: ‘I don't just make this stuff up, you know. Because of Kinsey, I get to lead two lives—hers and mine. Sometimes I'm not sure which I prefer’ (Taylor 10). If, as Grafton says, Kinsey Millhone is a ‘stripped down version’ of Grafton herself (Taylor 10), Kinsey also comments throughout the series on inventing and reinventing herself. In ‘A’ Is for Alibi, Kinsey reflects that she knows more about other people's lives than her own, and speculates, ‘Perhaps, in poring over the facts about other people, I could discover something about myself’ (132). In ‘F’ Is for Fugitive Kinsey is hired to prove the innocence of murder of a man who walked away from prison seventeen years ago: ‘Curious, I thought, that a man can reinvent himself. There was something enormously appealing in the idea of setting one persona aside and constructing a second to take its place’ (11). And in ‘H’ Is for Homicide Kinsey gets an actual opportunity to reinvent herself as an unwilling undercover agent in an insurance fraud gang: about her assumed identity as ‘Hannah’ Kinsey writes, ‘I was making up Hannah's character as I went along, and it was liberating as hell. She was short-tempered, sarcastic, out-spoken, and crude. I could get used to this. License to misbehave’ (142). A ‘license to misbehave’ is as good an expression as any to describe Grafton's hard-boiled feminism throughout the Kinsey Millhone series. Grafton invents and reinvents herself and Kinsey Millhone in an attempt to exercise hard-boiled language as power.


  1. See especially Faludi. Faludi's hard-boiled journalism is a lot like Grafton's hard-boiled feminism, and reading Faludi's thoroughly researched book was important in my thinking about Grafton's fiction.

  2. For a man to ‘do’ feminist criticism requires a critical tiptoeing through a theoretical minefield. Showalter in ‘Introduction: The Rise of Gender’ (Showalter 6-7) uses the memorable phrase ‘Some “male feminism” looked a lot like the old misogyny dressed up in Wolf's clothing,’ illustrating that such male feminism is not ‘genuine self-transformation’ but an ‘intellectual appropriation’ involving ‘the mastery of the feminine’ which ‘has long been a stance of masculine authority.’ Men's enthusiasm for ‘essentialist’ feminism—theories that assert essentially feminine or female qualities of women, women's distinctive ways of knowing and being—seems too much like the long-standing habit of thinking through ‘sexual analogy,’ described and denounced by Ellmann (2-26) twenty-five years ago. Moi's discussion of Ellmann underscores, I believe, the continued relevance of Ellmann's early and ground-breaking study; see Moi 31-41.

    That kind of thinking has dichotomized the sexes and resulted in the egregious sex and gender stereotypes that have sustained (if not necessarily caused) women's subjugation. But men adhering to a poststructuralist mistrust of all essentialism (an essential mistrust of essentialism, it should be noted) have tended to ignore the gendered nature of human experience; in their deconstructions of binary oppositions—including ‘male/female’ and ‘man/woman’—male poststructuralists have effaced women's experiences and reduced différence to a textual effect which can be ‘deconstructed’ but which leaves women's oppression in the world intact. For discussions of feminists’ problems with poststructuralist theories, especially ‘anti-essentialism,’ see Fuss 6-18 (on the essentialism/anti-essentialism controversy) and 23-37 (‘Reading like a Feminist’). Balbus specifically discusses the problems of applying Foucault to feminism. Sawicki's response to Balbus (‘Feminism’) underscores the problems of male feminists appropriating essentialist feminism and argues strongly in favour of a Foucauldian feminism. Sawicki includes this response in her book on Foucault and feminism (Disciplining Foucault), which presents a sound case for an ‘anti-essentialist,’ poststructuralist, Foucauldian feminism, and the ideas of which have profoundly informed this paper.

    As the feminist psychoanalyst and critical theorist Flax notes, ‘Male scholars tend not to read feminist theories or to think about possible implications for their own work’ (24). Important as it has become, as Showalter has noted (1-11, quoting Flax 2), to think and talk about gender, it has still been left largely to women critics and theorists to do the thinking and talking—often at the risk of having this important work ‘devalued or segregated from the “mainstream” of intellectual life’ (Flax 24). While having benefited greatly from the diversity of feminist criticism as well as from the controversies within feminism, I am less interested in taking a position on those controversies than in making use of insights wherever I can find them. Accordingly, I have brought to bear feminist theories which help illuminate what is ‘there’ in the text.

  3. See Reddy ‘The Feminist Counter-Tradition’ 176. Reddy writes about Grafton and three other writers, ‘By writing as feminists and by creating feminist detectives, all four novelists teach their readers to read as feminists, to look on the world—at least temporarily—from a feminist perspective.’ As I will explore later in this chapter, the problem with Reddy's analysis is the singular designation in ‘a feminist perspective.’ Grafton's feminist perspective shares features with other feminisms but her individual working through of her perspective deserves specific attention.

  4. My brief discussion here of tough talk and wisecracks in the male branch of the genre of hard-boiled detective fiction derives from my longer treatment of the topic in ‘Tough Talk and Wisecracks.’

  5. From this point on, I will usually refer to Kinsey Millhone by her first name, as Grafton does in the Taylor interview. (As noted in one of the novels, ‘Kinsey’ is the detective's mother's ‘maiden’ name.) I found that the impersonal reference ‘Millhone’ simply did not suit a narrator who reveals herself so personally—and who usually introduces herself as ‘Kinsey’ and never refers to herself as ‘Millhone.’

  6. See Porter's discussion, 53-6, and my response, ‘Tough Talk’ 156-9 and Irons Gender 147-51. I have discussed the relation of the hard-boiled conceit to the larger project of literary modernism in ‘A Heap of Broken Images,’ where I also discuss the ideology of hard-boiled detective fiction and its appropriation by the popular audience.

  7. See also Reddy ‘The Feminist Counter-Tradition’ 174-6. As noted, Porter finds the language to be a digressive effect in hard-boiled fiction, and discusses the ideology of the genre generally (115-29) and the language and ideology of hard-boiled detective fiction specifically (133-45). Klein concludes that being a hard-boiled private investigator is ‘an unsuitable job for a feminist,’ and that the feminism of writers like Grafton is severely compromised by their adoption of the hard-boiled genre—that their novels ‘demonstrate a triumph of the genre over feminist ideology’ (200-21). Ogdon goes so far as to say that ‘there is a hard-boiled ideology’ that is white, heterosexual, and male, and that ‘describes a specific way of speaking and seeing’ which is different in kind from that employed by ‘detectives from the margins’ (those who are not white, male, and heterosexual) (71). Klein and Ogdon seem to read novels like catalogues of ideological markers or effects, and with Humm, Stigant, and Widdowson I think we must ‘avoid a functionalist sociology which insists upon mechanically reading off ideological effects from the formulae ossified in a “lesser tradition” of popular fiction’ (10). Palmer's recent analysis of gender, genre, and ideology is more thorough and less categorical than the studies mentioned but still suggests that ‘the elements of thriller structure … make central female roles within this genre difficult to sustain’ (14g). See also my discussion on the relation of ideology and reader response to hard-boiled detective fiction in ‘A Heap of Broken Images.’

  8. Works by Foucault which inform my approach include The Archaeology of Knowledge; Politics, Philosophy, Culture; and, in particular, two essays/interviews, ‘Truth and Power’ and ‘The Subject and Power.’ Although I favour feminisms which align themselves with Foucault and other poststructuralist ‘anti-essentialist’ theories, I am not indicting ‘essentialist’ feminisms put forward, for example, by Reddy in her book and article and represented, variously, by Carol Gilligan, Nancy Chodorow, and others. As I have noted, however, I am leery of any ‘essentialist’ feminism put forward by male critics and do not want to make pronouncements about ‘the nature of women’ as it might appear in Grafton's fiction.

  9. Porter cites Voloshinov's discussion (Voloshinov 91), to which I will turn shortly.

  10. See Fuss xi-xii, 1-6.

  11. Irons usefully describes the problematic nature of ‘toughness’ for women writing in the hard-boiled genre, and I would be one of those that would argue, as he says one could, ‘that Kinsey Millhone's narrative space in the discourse of feminism may be less problematical than that of the more consciously feminist V. I. Warshawski’ (135). I think, however, that Grafton ‘busts’ rather than ‘bends’ gender, and that she reinvents woman as rugged individual rather than reinventing the rugged individual as woman—but there I may be splitting hairs.

  12. For a discussion of how well Heilbrun in her Amanda Cross novels fulfils her own requirements for creating women characters and writing feminist fiction, see Roberts, reprinted and extended in this volume.

I must acknowledge the invaluable assistance throughout my work on this project (and in pretty nearly everything else I do) of one of the most astute feminist thinkers I know: Randee Huber, my wife. I have benefited greatly from her knowledge of feminist criticism, her perceptive readings of Grafton's fiction, and her sage advice on this paper.

Works Cited

Arac, Jonathan, ed. After Foucault: Humanistic Knowledge, Postmodern Challenges. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988.

Balbus, Isaac. ‘Disciplining Women: Michel Foucault and the Power of Feminist Discourse.’ Praxis International 5.4 (1985): 466-83. Revised in Feminism as Critique. Ed. Seyla Benhabib and Drucilla Cornell. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987. 110-27. And in Arac 138-60.

Christianson, Scott. ‘A Heap of Broken Images: Hard-boiled Detective Fiction and the Discourse(s) of Modernity.’ In Walker and Frazer 235-48.

———. ‘Tough Talk and Wisecracks: Language as Power in American Detective Fiction.’ Journal of Popular Culture 23.2 (1989): 151-62. Rpt. in Irons Gender 142-55.

Ellmann, Mary. Thinking about Women. San Diego: Harvest/HBJ, 1968.

Faludi, Susan. Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women. New York: Crown, 1991.

Flax, Jane. Thinking Fragments: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and Postmodernism in the Contemporary West. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language. New York: Pantheon, 1972.

———. Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings, 1977-1984. Ed. Lawrence D. Kritzman. New York: Routledge, 1988.

———. ‘The Subject and Power.’ Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. By Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow. 1982. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983. 208-26.

———. ‘Truth and Power.’ Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. By Foucault. Ed. Colin Gordon. New York: Pantheon, 1980. 109-33.

Fuss, Diana. Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature, and Difference. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Grafton, Sue. ‘A’ Is for Alibi. 1982. New York: Bantam, 1987.

———. ‘B’ Is for Burglar. 1985. New York: Bantam, 1986.

———. ‘C’ Is for Corpse. 1986. New York: Bantam, 1987.

———. ‘D’ Is for Deadbeat. 1987. New York: Bantam, 1988.

———. ‘E’ Is for Evidence. Book Club ed. New York: Henry Holt, 1988.

———. ‘F’ Is for Fugitive. Book Club ed. New York: Henry Holt, 1989.

———. ‘G’ Is for Gumshoe. 1990. New York: Ballantine, 1991.

———. ‘H’ Is for Homicide. 1991. New York: Ballantine, 1992.

———. ‘I’ Is for Innocent. New York: Henry Holt, 1992.

Hammett, Dashiell. The Novels of Dashiell Hammett. New York: Knopf, 1965.

Heilbrun, Carolyn G. Reinventing Womanhood. New York: Norton, 1979.

Huber, Randee. Conversation. 8 July 1992.

Humm, Peter, Paul Stigant, and Peter Widdowson, eds. Popular Fictions: Essays in Literature and History. London: Methuen, 1986.

Irons, Glenwood. ‘New Women Detectives: G Is for Gender-Bending.’ In Irons Gender 127-41.

———, ed. Gender, Language, and Myth: Essays on Popular Narrative. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.

Klein, Kathleen Gregory. The Woman Detective: Gender and Genre. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literacy Theory. London and New York: Methuen, 1985.

Ogdon, Bethany. ‘Hard-Boiled Ideology.’ Critical Quarterly 34.1 (Spring 1992): 75-87.

Palmer, Jerry. Potboilers: Methods, Concepts, and Case Studies in Popular Fiction. London: Routledge, 1991.

Parker, Robert B. Double Deuce. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1992.

Porter, Dennis. The Pursuit of Crime: Art and Ideology in Detective Fiction. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.

Reddy, Maureen T. ‘The Feminist Counter-Tradition in Crime: Cross, Grafton, Paretsky, and Wilson.’ In Walker and Frazer 174-87.

———. Sisters in Crime: Feminism and the Crime Novel. New York: Continuum, 1988.

Roberts, Jeanne Addison. ‘Feminist Murder: Amanda Cross Reinvents Womanhood.’ Clues: A Journal of Detection 6.1 (1985): 3-13.

Sawicki, Jana. Disciplining Foucault: Feminism, Power, and the Body. New York: Routledge, 1991.

———. ‘Feminism and the Power of Foucauldian Discourse.’ In Arac 161-78 and Sawicki Disciplining 49-66.

Showalter, Elaine, ed. Speaking of Gender. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Taylor, Bruce. ‘G Is for (Sue) Grafton.’ Interview. Armchair Detective 22.1 (Winter 1989): 4-13.

Voloshinov, V. N. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Trans. Ladislav Matejka and I. R. Titunik. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973.

Walker, Ronald G., and June M. Frazer, eds. The Cunning Craft: Original Essays on Detective Fiction and Contemporary Literary Theory. Macomb: Western Illinois University Press, 1990.

Wittig, Monique. The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Boston: Beacon, 1992.

Priscilla L. Walton (essay date 1995)

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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 success with mystery fiction is such that she is often hailed as an innovator of the Tough Gal Private Eye, and lauded as a re-vis(ion)er of crime writing. Her efforts (along with those of her “sisters in crime,” Sara Paretsky and Marcia Muller) to open the conventionally sexist and exclusive hard-boiled detective mode to include women and women's issues have encouraged the production of a remarkable number of feminist detective novels. Since the bestselling status of Grafton's novels would indicate that her works are read by and appeal to women, I would like to explore the ways in which her writings serve to empower female readers and, hence, contribute to feminist discourse.1

Although there has been relatively little feminist scholarship devoted to the en/gendered nature of reading practices, that gender operates as a component in interpretative strategies is suggested by readers’ responses to writers like Grafton. Indeed, assessments of feminist detective fiction will often vary according to the gender of the reader. As I have discovered through teaching these works and discussing them with students, friends, and colleagues, female readers often respond favorably to Grafton's Kinsey Millhone novels, where male readers frequently contest the success of her rewriting of hard-boiled male authors. Indeed, in one of the more perceptive articles on Grafton, “‘Reader, I blew him away’: Convention and Transgression in Sue Grafton,” Peter J. Rabinowitz argues that Grafton's “A” Is for Alibi generates double readings which subvert the subversive content of the text. Rabinowitz finds that in this novel Kinsey Millhone can be “interpreted as a woman tamed and a woman punished. But however she oscillates, she never quite finds a new position in which to stand, and this transgressive novel suddenly finds itself springing back into the same familiar trajectories [of traditional hard-boiled detective fiction]” (340). Ultimately, Rabinowitz suggests that Grafton's subversion and conformity run parallel in “A” Is for Alibi and thus exemplify the ways in which a writer—and a character—can become imprisoned in genre. Rabinowitz's analysis of Grafton's novel is sympathetic and discerning, and its sophistication is perhaps most evident in the author's ability to acknowledge that readers of different backgrounds may interpret Grafton differently. Consequently, Rabinowitz concludes his essay by calling for a critique of his critique when he notes, it “would be interesting to see … whether readers who don't share my background as a white male academic apply similar or different strategies to the text” (340-41).

Rabinowitz's ability to position himself and his reading in relation to the female-authored text he examines opens a line of inquiry into an analysis of the ways in which subject positions influence reading strategies. The act of reading is a process which involves the development of an identificatory relationship between the protagonist and the reader. The ways in which one might identify with a character will vary according to one's position in relation to the world of the literary text and to the world at large. When a woman approaches novels like Grafton's, novels that play upon and undercut the sexist proclivities of the male detective “canon,” her position as a woman is affirmed by the resistant text. When a male reader approaches the same text, he does not similarly experience the affirmative process. Although the split in en/gendered reader responses I have noted could be a coincidence, I think that it results from the differences in the cultural spaces that men and women occupy, spaces that influence readerly appreciation of feminist crime fiction—and, arguably, revisionary writings in general.

I would suggest that the diverse and en/gendered responses to Grafton derive from the discrepancy in men's and women's cultural locations. Woman's experience of the world diverges from that of man since her relationship with the world is established on a different basis. I want to stress, before proceeding, that I am not suggesting that all women (or men) read in the same way and hence that all women (or men) are the same; but, rather, I wish to argue that women occupy a cultural site that allows for a generalized explication of woman's experience of the world. I want to draw on Teresa de Lauretis's explication of experience to elucidate my position. De Lauretis explains:

by experience, I do not mean the mere registering of sensory data, or a purely mental (psychological) relation to objects and events, or the acquisition of skills and competences by accumulation or repeated exposure. I use the term not in the individualistic, idiosyncratic sense of something belonging to one and exclusively her own even though others might have “similar” experiences; but rather in the general sense of a process by which, for all social beings, subjectivity is constructed. Through that process one places oneself or is placed in social reality, and so perceives and comprehends as subjective (referring to, even originating in, oneself) those relations—material, economic, and interpersonal—which are in fact social and, in a larger perspective, historical. The process is continuous, its achievement unending or daily renewed. For each person, therefore, subjectivity is an ongoing construction, not a fixed point of departure or arrival from which one then interacts with the world. On the contrary, it is the effect of that interaction which I call experience; and thus it is produced not by external ideals, values, or material causes, but by one's personal, subjective, engagement in the practices, discourses, and institutions that lend significance (value, meaning, and affect) to the events of the world.


De Lauretis's suggestion that experience derives from social location allows for a theoretical discussion of the ways in which the differences in cultural placement of men and women will generate different reading strategies.

Historically, where man has operated as a subject of discourse, woman has been posited as the object of discourse and, thus, constructed as a passive receiver rather than an active performer. As feminist psychoanalytic critics argue, the feminine “I” has functioned in mimicry of the masculine “I” because patriarchy has not accorded woman a position from which to speak. When woman does assume a subject position, therefore, or tries to perform as the “I” of the discourse, the “I” she adopts is displaced and deferred (Grosz 72). Her “I” serves as a shadow of his “I,” or becomes a transformed “you” in relation to him; she does not—because she cannot—speak as “author,” since she has no author-ity. What this means, in practical terms, is that women have been discursively conditioned to accept a subordinate position, a position that is reinforced through their consistent social disenfranchisement.

This disenfranchisement of female subjectivity has a direct bearing on interpretative strategies. As Laura Mulvey in her 1975 article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” argued in relation to film, the position of the viewer is traditionally encoded as male; woman is figured through her “to-be-looked-at-ness,” rather than as the looker (436). Mulvey's argument points to the ways in which woman has been forced to assume the viewing position of man in order to participate as a viewer of film. No space has been accorded to her as subject, and, consequently, she cannot view “as a woman,” since she cannot identify—as a subject—with women on the screen. She watches these cinematic women being watched, a situation that reinforces her own objectification. The process of reading a book is similar to “reading” a film in that female subjectivity remains a contested space in conventional fiction. Grafton and writers like her, I would argue, inscribe a subject position for women, and this inscription allows for female readers to read “as women.” Femininity is affirmed in these texts, not derided or elided.

I suspect that the en/gendered responses I have noticed in relation to feminist crime writing result from woman's affirmation in and through these novels. That is, when a female reader is confronted with a female writer's efforts to counter and subvert the “canonical” conventions of hard-boiled (male) detective fiction, she does not generally read in an effort to subvert the subversion. For her to read Grafton “against the grain,” as does Rabinowitz, would be to undercut herself. Because she has a political stake in accepting the work—her subject position is validated within it—she responds differently from her male counterpart. A man, who has not been cast, consistently, as the object of discourse, might well miss the political ramifications of the inscribed female subjectivity, since it does not diverge from what he has been conditioned to expect for himself. A woman, whether consciously or unconsciously, responds to the female subjectivity that is established in the texts and reinforced through her reading of them.

I want to turn, now, to Grafton to examine the ways in which female subjectivity is implemented in her novels. Kinsey Millhone speaks the “I” of the first-person narration of Grafton's novels, and while this alone would not designate a shift from the expected female “you” to a female “I”/eye (in traditional texts, female characters often simulate a first-person narrative voice, but this does not indicate their exhibition of subjectivity),2 her “I” carries with it a subjective authority that is lacking in more conventional works. Kinsey's “I”/eye is supported through the narrative content, which advocates an authoritative feminine subjectivity. Throughout Grafton's series, Kinsey indulges in generalizations that work to affirm the subjectivity of herself and her female readers. For instance, when Kinsey deliberately switches common gender pronoun assumptions, her strategy draws attention to the culturally conditioned expectation that woman will occupy a place subordinate to man's. In “J” Is for Judgment, Kinsey confides: “Every case is different, and every investigator ends up flying by the seat of her (or his) pants” (119). The switch from the expected “his pants,” or the more common contemporary version, “his (or her) pants,” repositions woman and “her” pants as the subject of the sentence; “she” does not function as an occlusion or an afterthought. There is a conscious effort here to establish woman as a primary subject, and this effort is borne out in the ways in which women and women's traditional activities are recuperated and validated in the novels.

Historically, women in the West have been relegated to the home and then taught to view their occupation as inconsequential and meaningless. Grafton's novels reposition domestic duties as valuable learned skills. Kinsey is not a domesticated or conventional woman, but her references to domestic activities authorize the value of woman's traditional space. In “B” Is for Burglar, Kinsey moves to recuperate the worth of woman's domestic training: “I was going to have to check it out item by item. I felt as if I were on an assembly line, inspecting reality with a jeweller's loupe. There's no place in a P.I.'s life for impatience, faintheartedness, or sloppiness. I understand the same qualifications apply for housewives” (33). Through passages like this, Grafton's novels perform an important function in affirming women who have been taught to trivialize and debase the abilities they have cultivated in their domestication.3

Where the de-valuation of domestic skills is common parlance in patriarchal discourse, Grafton's generous use of domestic analogies serves to substantiate the importance of the duties women have performed in the home. Indeed, the home is posited as a sort of base training camp for coping with the professional world, and the novels demonstrate how woman's domestication has better equipped her to act in the professional world. Often, Kinsey will equate the inner domestic sphere with the outer professional sphere. As she recounts in “A” Is for Alibi:

I did a couple of personal errands and then went home. It had not been a very satisfying day but then most of my days are the same: checking and cross-checking, filling in blanks, detail work that was absolutely essential to the job but scarcely dramatic stuff. The basic characteristics of any good investigator are a plodding nature and infinite patience. Society has inadvertently been grooming women to this end for years.


This comparison serves to close the patriarchally constructed gap that separates the inner and the outer worlds. Those two spheres are bridged here, and the bridge foregrounds their interdependence—it does not downgrade one at the expense of the other.

Kinsey often contrasts herself with her male colleagues (within novels and media), and highlights the differences apparent in their work on a case. In “F” Is for Fugitive, the P.I. compares the ways in which she operates to the ways in which a male P.I. would function. She bemoans: “I felt like I'd spent half my time on this case washing dirty dishes. How come Magnum, P.I., never had to do stuff like this?” (159). Just as woman has been constructed as an “expert” in the kitchen, so she has been taught that she is helpless outside of it. In “J” Is for Judgment, Kinsey reiterates the patriarchally held view that women are unable to master technical concepts, and highlights the sexism that underpins such perceptions of men's and women's traditional activities: “Boys know about these things: guns, cars, lawn mowers, garbage disposals, electric switches, baseball statistics. I'm scared to take the lid off the toilet tank because that ball thing always looks like it's on the verge of exploding” (206). By juxtaposing the expectations placed on men and on women, Grafton is able to foreground the masculinist construction of those expectations. Where, in the earlier passage, Magnum is not required to wash dishes, women have not been required to learn the “mechanical” skills denoted in the above quotation. The difference between the two constructions, of course, is patriarchally loaded: Magnum does not have to do dishes because it is beneath him (and, presumably, because he can rely on some woman to do them for him), but women do not exhibit technical prowess because it is beyond their comprehension.

Despite her valorization of feminine capabilities, however, Kinsey does acknowledge how little women's skills are valued in the patriarchal world. The inequity of salaries, therefore, becomes an issue in “I” Is for Innocent, when Kinsey discovers that the (male) P.I. on the case before her charged $50 an hour. She comments, wryly, “Morley was getting fifty? I couldn't believe it. Either men are outrageous or women are fools. Guess which, I thought. My standard fee has always been thirty bucks an hour plus mileage” (23). While this passage suggests that women are foolish in underestimating their abilities, it also serves as a reminder that women have been conditioned to regard their abilities as second-rate and, thus, taught to participate in their own disempowerment.

Kinsey refuses to re-imprison woman in a sexist fashion by trivializing her domesticity, and rather attacks the areas where woman is patriarchally constricted. Clothing, which women have been conditioned to value, is devalued in Grafton's texts. Kinsey herself wears jeans and turtleneck sweaters, and has, for more formal occasions, an “all-purpose black dress” which is: “black with long sleeves, in some exotic blend of polyester you could bury for a year without generating a crease” (“I” [“I” Is for Innocent] 216). Traditional feminine footwear is disparaged when Kinsey notes that she has never been able to wear high heels: “I have friends who adore high heels, but I can't see the point. I figure if high heels were so wonderful, men would be wearing them” (“I” 216). Where that which has been forced upon women (and then used to trivialize them) is ridiculed, however, articles of clothing which are unmentionable/s in patriarchal discourse—as well as the object of much male humor—are not only mentioned, but are constructed as multipurpose garments. Kinsey's references to feminine underclothing—and their bizarre usages—provide for comic relief in several of Grafton's texts. Trapped in a hotel room, in “G” Is for Gumshoe, listening to the lovemaking of her neighbors through the wall. Kinsey acts as follows: “[I] stuffed a sock in each cup of my bra and tied it across my head like earmuffs, with the ends knotted under my chin. Didn't help much. I lay there, a cone over each ear like an alien, wondering at the peculiarities of human sex practices. I would have much to report when I returned to my planet” (87). This move to recuperate an aspect of femininity that has been derided serves as a means of reappropriating the trappings of femininity and re-positing them in a favorable light.

Perhaps most importantly, throughout her novels Grafton works to assert the value of femininity. In an age where the single white female has been vilified as the target of a backlash against women, in general, and feminists, in particular, as Susan Faludi so aptly argues in Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women, Kinsey's delight in her single state serves to endorse the status of growing numbers of single women. In “D” Is for Deadbeat, Kinsey notes: “I love being single. It's almost like being rich” (21). In addition, Kinsey makes it clear that she likes women and takes pleasure in the appearance of women's bodies. “C” Is for Corpse provides a meaningful example of the ways in which Grafton repositions the female body, a body that has been the object of scrutiny by men from time immemorial. Rather than objectifying women, Kinsey watches women in a women's locker room and comments approvingly on their shapes and sizes: “women paraded back and forth in various stages of undress. It was a comforting sight. So many versions of the female breast, of buttocks and bellies and pubic nests, endless repetitions of the same forms. These women seemed to feel good about themselves and there was a camaraderie among them that I enjoyed” (108). This is an important passage, particularly in light of the ways in which women have tried and continue to try to live up to male standards of female beauty, a situation that has led to an epidemic of anorexia and bulimia as well as to a rise in self-destructive “beautification” measures—like liposuction and plastic surgery. There are no impossible standards of feminine beauty outlined here; indeed, there are no “standards” set at all. Kinsey simply enjoys the look of femininity—whatever shape or size it happens to assume.

Grafton not only takes pains to critique male standards of feminine beauty, she also works to delineate positive interaction between women and, hence, to undermine the sexist notion that women perceive each other as competitors for men. Rejecting the position of the envious woman, Kinsey takes delight in her best friend's attractiveness. Woman's appearance is also re-visioned through an undercutting of the patriarchal truism that “men don't make passes at women who wear glasses,” since Kinsey's friend, Vera, sports glasses with “tortoiseshell rims and big round lenses tinted the color of iced tea. She wore glasses so well it made other women wish their eyesight would fail” (“B” [“B” Is for Burglar] 64).

Constructive portrayals of women, in whatever walk of life, abound in the Kinsey Millhone novels. What is perhaps most striking here is that Kinsey frequently crosses class boundaries and shows a marked appreciation of women working in traditionally marginalized spheres. In “A” Is for Alibi, Kinsey engages in conversation with Ruth, the secretary in a law office. This passage invokes the strength of female bonding, and also subverts expectations of “feather-brained” secretaries. Kinsey appraises Ruth's abilities and comments on the skills involved in secretarial work (reminiscent of her positive re-evaluation of housewifery):

Her husband had left her for a younger woman (fifty-five) and Ruth, on her own for the first time in years, had despaired of ever finding a job, as she was then sixty-two years old, “though in perfect health,” she said. She was quick, capable, and of course was being aced out at every turn by women one-third her age who were cute instead of competent.

“The only cleavage I got left, I sit on,” she said and then hooted at herself.


Ruth's story also highlights the plight of middle-aged women who have been cast on the rag heap because their aging appearance supposedly renders them useless. Kinsey's assessment of the aging Ruth's usefulness, therefore, provides a significant commentary on the patriarchal belief that when women can no longer bear children, their purpose in life is over.

In “C” Is for Corpse, the “aging” woman makes another appearance and this time provides Kinsey with the opportunity to contrast the changes that have taken place in women's acceptance of other women. In this case, Lila, the older woman Kinsey encounters, has unquestioningly accepted her patriarchal training and perceives other women as threats. Kinsey notes: “I like older women as a rule. I like almost all women, as a matter of fact. I find them open and confiding by nature, amusingly candid when it comes to talk of men. This one was of the old school: giddy and flirtatious. She'd despised me on sight” (13-14). In this novel, Lila is attempting to bilk Kinsey's neighbor, Henry, of his life savings, and it is interesting that it is the older woman's distrust of women that renders her suspect. Women who like women are appraised favorably.

Kinsey never takes gratuitous pleasure in demeaning women or condemning lifestyles different from her own. In “E” Is for Evidence, she reflects on the lifestyle of the wealthy—and traditional—Olive Kohler, and acknowledges: “I'd begun to feel very charitable about Olive, whose life-style only yesterday had seemed superficial and self-indulgent. Who was I to judge? It was none of my business how she made her peace with the world. She'd fashioned a life out of tennis and shopping, but she managed to do occasional charity work, which was more than I could claim” (110). While Kinsey may learn to appreciate Olive's position, however, that position is undermined in the text. Killed by the husband who wishes to possess her, Olive figures the dangers of leading a patriarchally inscribed life. Olive's choice of lifestyle is dignified by Kinsey, but it is nonetheless dramatized in the novel as a risky, if not fatal, undertaking and contrasted with the more fruitful possibilities envisioned through feminine independence.

Perhaps one of Kinsey's most appealing characteristics is her fiercely independent nature. Glenwood Irons, in his essay, “New Women Detectives: G Is for Gender-Bending,” perceives Grafton as less feminist than Sara Paretsky because her novels conform to the ethos of American individualism:

If Grafton has created a feminist detective, it is to the extent that Kinsey Millhone fulfils Marty Knepper's definition of feminists as “women capable of intelligence, moral responsibility, competence and independent action … [who reject] sexist stereotypes.” Unlike Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski, Kinsey is not interested in the power of female bonding, rather, she has “engendered” the macho tough-guy detective with a woman's perspective, a project quite different from the strength-from-bonding created by Paretsky.


While I do not, by any means, wish to deride the radical undercutting of sexist hard-boiled detective fiction I believe Paretsky's writings to manifest,4 I also believe that Irons's argument points up the problems of assuming that what is problematic in the hands of white male writers carries the same negative overtones when transcribed in the hands of women or members of minority groups. Cultural placement must be taken into consideration, here, in that feminine independence has repercussions different from those of male individualism.

Kinsey's assumption of a loner status is not the same as an imposition of masculine selfhood, a subtlety that is emphasized in Grafton's novels through Kinsey's carefully constructed autonomy. Not surprisingly, Kinsey's independence is dearly bought, and comprises her defensive stance against a patriarchal world which seeks to subordinate her. In keeping with the problematics of heterosexual relationships, feminine in/dependence becomes a troublesome strand in “G” Is for Gumshoe, when Kinsey falls in love with her hired bodyguard, Robert Dietz. Like many women, Kinsey becomes dependent on Dietz, and her dependence is particularly disturbing because Grafton has taken such pains, throughout the series, to maintain the self-sufficiency of her protagonist. Indeed, as the following passage indicates, Kinsey begins to bow to Dietz's “superior” judgment:

On our way to the firing range, we stopped by the gun shop and spent an hour bickering about guns. He knew far more than I did and I had to yield to his expertise. I left a deposit on an H&K P7 in 9-millimeter, filling out all the necessary paperwork. I ended up paying twenty-five bucks for fifty rounds of the Winchester Silvertips Dietz had insisted on. In exchange for my compliance, he had the good taste not to mention that all of this was his idea. I'd expected to find it galling to take his advice, but in reality, it felt fine. What did I have to prove? He'd been at it a lot longer than I had and he seemed to know what he was talking about.


Kinsey's submission to Dietz's judgment does not go unmarked in the text, however. Cleverly, Grafton contrasts Kinsey's dependence on Dietz with that of Irene Gersh's dependence on her husband, in the textual subplot. Irene is dependent to the point where she is helpless without the guidance of others and is immobilized by the prospect of filling out her mother's death certificate by herself:

She seemed to collect herself. She nodded mutely, eyes fixed on me with gratitude as I moved into the adjacent room. I gathered up a pen and the eight-by-eight-inch square form from the desk and returned to the couch, wondering how Clyde endured her dependency. Whatever compassion I felt was being overshadowed by the sense that I was shouldering a nearly impossible burden.


Grafton contrasts the two forms of dependence in this novel and problematizes both. Where the independent Kinsey comes close to surrendering her selfhood to Dietz, Irene's loss of selfhood constitutes a trap for dismissive readers. Irene is dependent because she has been traumatized as a child, a trauma that has gone undiscovered—and even led to her construction by the male medical establishment as an untreatable hysteric—until Kinsey begins to investigate a twenty-year-old murder. Kinsey unearths the reasons behind Irene's fears, reasons that presumably will enable Irene to function more purposefully, but the P.I. seems unable to save herself from the dependent relationship she has developed with Dietz. Dietz leaves for Germany at the end of the novel, thereby removing the threat of dependency from Kinsey, and their interaction highlights the difficulties resulting from the intricate power balances always at play in heterosexual relationships.

Iron's failure to distinguish the political difference between male and female independence is a miscalculation to which many critics fall prey. The shift in subject positioning must be taken into consideration when readers and critics approach Grafton, or the subversion and affirmation embodied in her fiction will get lost. Ward Churchill, for example, perceives the recent innovations in detective fiction (feminist and Other-wise) as ideological justifications for a repressive social system. In relation to Grafton, specifically, Churchill charges that: “Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone … is more of a ‘tried-and-true granddaughter of Marlowe and Spade,’ demonstrating that in the new American sensibility, it's sometimes okay for women (but never men) to comport themselves like macho thugs” (285). Churchill's appraisal of Kinsey as a “macho thug” may seem rather harsh to (female) readers who have taken pleasure in the alternatives they find her to offer to “canonical” hard-boiled detectives like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, but if the divergent cultural sites the detectives occupy are ignored, the differences in their political positions are rendered inconsequential. Since Kinsey does not operate in a literary vacuum, her actions are more appropriately viewed as a re-action, for she is performing in response to her sexist forefathers.

Where Churchill, like Irons, does not place Grafton in a cultural and historical context, other critics do, and yet find her novels troublesome. Disturbingly, Grafton has been criticized by female critics who contend that her texts violate feminist principles. Kathleen Gregory Klein argues that female characters who validate traditional social structures demonstrate

the primacy of the conventional private-eye fictional formula over the feminist ideology which falsely seems to signal a change in the genre. Ironically, Grafton, McCone, and Steiner's novels demonstrate a triumph of the genre over feminist ideology in much the same way that patriarchal/sexist ideology triumphs over the genre in most of the preceding novels.


Klein offers an important critique of Grafton, and she astutely points out the uneasy relationship that exists between the author and her feminist sympathies. On a textual level, the killers in the Kinsey Millhone novels are as often female as male (six of the eleven novels depict female murderers), and as a result, the texts work to reinforce a stereotype of murderous women that has no basis in statistical reality.

In addition, the ideological impetus of the novels wavers, perhaps reflecting Grafton's own discomfort with feminism. In a 1989 interview with Bruce Taylor, published as “G Is for (Sue) Grafton,” the author confided, “I am a feminist from way back” (11); but she retracts her statement in a 1992 interview with Daniel Richler for the TV Ontario program Imprint and contends:

To me, writing is not about gender. And to me to imply that women are in any way at a disadvantage seems incorrect. … I don't see women as victims. I don't see women as one down. I don't believe we need to herd together in order to have power in the world. So what I prefer to do is to operate out of my own system, wherein, in some ways, I think I'm doing just as much for women by being out on the front lines by myself.

Grafton's inconsistent adherence to feminist politics when interviewed is distressing, and even convenient in light of the current backlash against women. (Her statement also provides a marked contrast to Paretsky's response to the same question: “You know, any more, when people ask me if I'm a feminist, I'm sort of tempted to say: ‘Call me a strident bitch and smile when you say it’” [Imprint interview]). But, as a friend and colleague pointed out to me, to dismiss Grafton as a result of her statements is also convenient, since it is to hold the author to account for the situation that has presumably led her to retract her feminist sympathies. In that Grafton is a writer in the public eye, who must publish novels in order to support herself, her position must be placed in the context of bestselling fiction, which depends upon a large and diverse audience. Before one condemns a female writer for her political stance, that writer's position as a working woman should be figured into the assessment, since her statements may derive from her fear of alienating a wide audience.5

I also think that the politics of formula fiction should be weighed when evaluating the success or failure of the subversion of genre conventions in feminist crime writing. As John G. Cawelti has noted, formula fiction, in particular, depends upon well-established conventional structures that contribute to its formulation and “reflect the interests of audiences, creators, and distributors” (124). Mass-market fiction relies upon its formula to generate readership. It therefore cannot subvert generic conventions to such an extent that it becomes unrecognizable to readers of the formula, since to do so would be to estrange the audience on which the fiction depends. And, when Cawelti draws attention to endemic characteristics of formula fiction, he also, by extension, illuminates an aspect of Grafton's writing that is particularly important. Cawelti argues that formula fiction has the ability to assist in the process of assimilating changes in cultural values. He observes, in relation to westerns:

The western has undergone almost a reversal in values over the past fifty years with respect to the representation of Indians and pioneers, but much of the basic structure of the formula and its imaginative vision of the meaning of the West has remained substantially unchanged. By their capacity to assimilate new meanings like this, literary formulas ease the transition between old and new ways of expressing things and thus contribute to cultural continuity.


Grafton, as the author of formula novels, who writes within a rigidly delineated genre, is—at least to a certain extent—necessarily caught within the problematics of her narrative form. But, given the cultural anxiety that feminism has generated in the last twenty years, the writings of Grafton (and female authors like her), provide a venue for assimilating some of the cultural changes that have taken place. It therefore need not follow that Grafton's adherence to the genre conventions of hard-boiled fiction renders her writings supportive of patriarchal constructions, or mars their contribution to feminist practice. I would argue that Grafton's texts enable readers, and female readers in particular, to explore the dynamics of gender constructions. Indeed, Grafton's fiction may well be extremely reflexive of woman's concerns precisely because they embody a compromise. Mimetically, the novels mirror woman's position in the world, for they deal with the world constructed through the hard-boiled mode and work to feminize it. Grafton's fiction does not attempt to create a new textual world, but rather deals with the problems inherent in the one with which her character is faced. The end result is of course a compromise—but, then, is not feminist practice, itself, always/already a compromise?

Grafton's novels do offer affirmation to the women to whom they are addressed. Hence, while 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. These aspects of Grafton's writings constitute a profound achievement, and when they are linked with positive depictions of woman's traditional roles, and with a character who actually likes other women, the end result manifests a powerful valorization of femininity. This woman writer's woman detective provides her women readers with a refreshing change from conventional depictions of femininity. And such a change is not only important to the world of detective fiction, in particular, it is also crucial to feminist movement in general.


  1. Many of the ideas developed in this essay have arisen out of discussions with Manina Jones in relation to our book-in-progress, “Detective Agency: Women Re-Writing the Hardboiled Tradition.” I am also indebted to Jamie Barlowe for her invaluable input into this article.

  2. The Turn of the Screw provides an excellent example of the ways in which a female character may attempt to assume a subject position, but is disenfranchised within the narrative. See my essay “‘What then on earth was I?’: Feminine Subjectivity and The Turn of the Screw,” in Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: The Turn of the Screw, Bedford Books, 1994.

  3. Grafton's texts inscribe a generalized white middle-class reader. This is not to suggest that they cannot be read by women outside of that cultural site, but rather that the values and the lifestyle they reflect are predominantly white and middle-class. Kinsey is a working woman, with pretensions to lower-class sensibilities, but her lifestyle is firmly in line with middle-class conventions.

    It should also be noted that Grafton's treatment of race is disturbing. There are few women of color in her novels, and those characters belonging to minority groups—particularly those of Hispanic background—are depicted in a condescending fashion that veers on the judgmental. In “H” Is for Homicide, for example, Grafton posits a particularly troublesome view of Mexican-American culture. Ultimately, the “success” of the novel lies in the recuperation of Bibianna Diaz into a white middle-class superstructure through her alliance with a white police officer, an alliance that involves her rejection of the “criminal” element embodied in men of her own culture.

  4. See my article, “Paretsky's V. I. as P.I.: Revising the Script and Recasting the Dick,” in Literature/Interpretative/Theory 4 (1993): 203-13.

  5. My thanks to Neal Ferris for this insight.

Works Cited

Cawelti, John G. “The Study of Literary Formulas.” Detective Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Robin W. Winks. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1980. 121-43.

Churchill, Ward. Fantasies of the Master Race. Ed. M. Annette Jaimes. Monroe, ME: Common Courage, 1992.

De Lauretis, Teresa. Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984.

Grafton, Sue. “A” Is for Alibi. New York: Bantam, 1987.

———. “B” Is for Burglar. New York: Bantam, 1986.

———. “C” Is for Corpse. New York: Bantam, 1987.

———. “D” Is for Deadbeat. New York: Bantam, 1988.

———. “E” Is for Evidence. New York: Bantam, 1989.

———. “F” Is for Fugitive. New York: Bantam, 1990.

———. “G” Is for Gumshoe. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1990.

———. “H” Is for Homicide. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1991.

———. “I” Is for Innocent. New York: Henry Holt, 1992.

———. “J” Is for Judgment. New York: Henry Holt, 1993.

———. “K” Is for Killer. New York: Henry Holt, 1994.

Grosz, Elizabeth. Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction. London: Routledge, 1990.

Irons, Glenwood. “New Woman Detectives: G Is for Gender-Bending.” Gender, Language, and Myth: Essays on Popular Narrative. Ed. Glenwood Irons. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1992.

Klein, Kathleen Gregory. The Woman Detective: Gender and Genre. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1988.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism. Ed. Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1991. 432-42.

Rabinowitz, Peter J. “‘Reader, I Blew Him Away’: Convention and Transgression in Sue Grafton.” Famous Last Words: Changes in Gender & Narrative Closure. Ed. Alison Booth. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 1993. 326-46.

Richler, Daniel. “Interview.” Imprint. Toronto: TV Ontario, 1992.

Taylor, Bruce. “G Is for (Sue) Grafton: An Interview with the Creator of the Kinsey Millhone Private Eye Series Who Delights Mystery Fans as She Writes Her Way Through the Alphabet.” Armchair Detective 22.1 (1989): 4-13.

Harriet Waugh (review date 5 April 1997)

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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 found. Kinsey tracks down a sweet, born-again hippie looking for love and reconciliation—a trussed lamb for the slaughter. She spends the rest of the novel driven by angry guilt in pursuit of a killer.

Unlike Sarah Paretsky's private eye Warshawski (the forerunner of most of this generation of female detectives), who has become increasingly angry, bitter and discouraged by dealing endlessly with crooked financiers, Kinsey has a tough vulnerability about her. Her relationships may not be entirely satisfactory but they do not exist to prove points, nor does she fall back on sentimental relationships with dogs or, as in the case of Patricia Cornwell's Dr Kay Scarpetta, a niece. She is altogether a more rounded and presentable heroine for the reader to engage with, and M Is for Malice delivers a nicely intricate plot, although I guessed both the motive and the murderer rather too early on.

Eugen Weber (review date 31 October 1999)

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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 to shrink as the intrepid investigator mounts her VW bug at the drop of a cellular phone to dash into action.

Outlaw begins with a nudge to aficionados of exercise machines that Kinsey patronizes and continues with recall of a long-lost husband (Southern California is littered with them) whose memory resurfaces just ahead of his street-shot corpse. Is Kinsey being set up—to what end and by whom? Dredging past shallows for some answers, the chirpy heroine also stirs the mud of other people's lives, uncovers unanticipated criminal activities, consumes quantities of junk food, solves serious fashion dilemmas like what to wear at a Montecito cocktail party and makes a strong case that investigation is research spiced with guile and crowned by luck.

Kinsey points out that pro bono means “for boneheads.” Since that is her chief self-assigned task here, Outlaw is weaker than Grafton's usual fare because Millhone is her own client and we care little for the object of her quest. But the chatter is as bright, the descriptions as colorful as we have come to expect, the menaces comfortingly benign and the ending satisfyingly brief and bloody.

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

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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 who pays her disability insurance even before her rent.

“When I sit there and think about the entire rest of the alphabet, I about have apoplexy,” said Grafton, who later this month will turn 60, which will put her at about 75 by the time she's done with the series. “I lower my focus and think all I have to worry about is writing the next sentence well. Don't look at the big picture. Don't worry about the critics. Just get it down to which word goes in front of which. And if you can do that, then the rest will take care of itself.”

One of the first modern hard-boiled female detectives, Millhone is a smart-mouthed, fast-thinking ex-cop based in Santa Teresa, a thinly veiled rendition of Santa Barbara. The setting is a natural for Grafton, who lives in Montecito and captures the aura with such clarity that you can almost smell the sea breeze.

Millhone is in her mid-30s (she ages one year every 2[frac12] books), twice divorced, no kids, no pets. She takes chances, makes mistakes and has even killed.

In the series' most recent installment, “O” Is for Outlaw, Kinsey returns with her wry sense of humor and insatiable appetite for Quarter Pounders with cheese.

“I steered with one hand while I munched with the other, all the time moaning with pleasure. It's pitiful to have a life in which junk food is awarded the same high status as sex. Then again, I tend to get a lot more of the one than I do of the other.”

In Outlaw, Millhone stumbles onto some long-forgotten personal mementos, including an unopened letter, that persuade her that a former husband isn't the murderer she thought he was. As he lies in a hospital fighting for his own life, she searches for the real killer.

Outlaw is the first in the series to delve into Kinsey's first marriage, a subject that made Grafton a bit nervous despite having a solid following for the series with 42 million books sold worldwide.

“As I was writing, I thought, they're gonna kill me for this. Nobody is going to give a [damn] about Kinsey Millhone's private life and here I am hanging my butt out,” Grafton said in her native Kentucky accent. “But by then, I was so far into it, I thought, ‘Oh, well, you've got to have one bad book in the lot, so let them cremate me.’”

It turned out to be another bestseller, earning praise from critics and readers alike.

She's now halfway through “P” and confident she'll make the January 2001 deadline for her new publisher, Putnam. Grafton writes seven days a week, taking a break only when she's ill or out of town. Although she spends four to five hours a day at the computer, she's constantly thinking about her work, even, she says, when she sleeps.

This rigorous schedule keeps her connected to the work and helps ensure that a new book will be published every 1[frac12] years. She hasn't settled on a title for “P”—she has about 25 possibilities, such as “persecute,” “prosecute,” “poison,” “prison” and “pistol”—but is leaning toward a certain choice that she won't mention. After that comes “Q” Is for Quarry. But will she be stumped by the ungainly X? Don't bet on it—try “X” Is for Xenophobe.


As a rule, Grafton doesn't discuss a book in progress, not even with her husband of 21 years, Steve Humphrey, a philosophy of physics professor at UC Santa Barbara and the University of Louisville. When she's done, she asks Humphrey to read it before sending it to her longtime editor, Marian Wood, who went to Putnam last year.

Growing up, Grafton dreamed of being a teacher, but it seems she was destined to write. Both her parents were alcoholics and she describes her childhood as one of “benign neglect.” But in some ways it was perfect, having the freedom to play in the neighborhood and invent incredible games. Because she had to grow up fast, she learned to be responsible, self-reliant and developed a keen eye with which to scan reality.

“That's what writing is about, looking at what's around you and finding a way to distill it into your fiction,” she said. “It served me well.”

Her childhood home in Louisville, Ky., had a rack of fiction paperbacks in which her mother, Vivian, had penciled in “dirty,” “dull” or “good” after she had read them. Her parents allowed her and her elder sister, Ann, to read anything, so while her peers were into Nancy Drew, she was reading Raymond Chandler.

She was also inspired by her father, C. W. “Chip” Grafton, who worked as a municipal bond attorney by day and wrote mystery fiction by night. He taught her how to develop a clear story line, pay attention to minor characters and, perhaps most importantly, how to take rejection as a writer. While working as a hospital cashier and a doctor's office receptionist, Grafton wrote three unpublished books before Keziah Dane came out in 1967 when she was 27.

The idea for “A” Is for Alibi came while Grafton was lying awake at night, fantasizing about killing her second husband, with whom she was embroiled in a bitter child-custody dispute. Instead of acting on her perfect plan, she put it down on paper. Her ex-husband has since told her that, at the time, he was thinking about disposing of her in the desert.

“At least I got a career out of the deal,” she says with a big grin.

In order to write with some authority, Grafton taught herself about private-eye and police procedures, forensics and toxicology. It took her five years to finish the first Kinsey Millhone book. She has since whittled down the process—it took only 13 months for “O” Is for Outlaw.

She and Millhone have a lot in common. Both have an all-purpose long-sleeved black dress, which Millhone uses to blend in at cocktail parties, courthouse proceedings and funerals. They stay physically fit. Grafton walks a total of 27 miles a week and does weightlifting and yoga; Millhone does a three-mile jog in the early morning along the beach. Both had childhoods marked by crisis—Millhone's parents were killed in a car accident when she was 5. Both are squeamish about needles, have a strong attachment to their purses and are expert at telling white lies.

“It's a marvel God doesn't reach right down and rip my tongue out by the roots for the lies I tell,” Millhone muses to herself in “B” Is for Burglar.

“She's like my secret self,” Grafton said. “She's the person I would have been, or might have been, had I not married young and had children. She is so real to me. Sometimes I feel like she's standing behind my shoulder going, ‘Do it, do it!’ And I go, ‘I'm not going to say that!’ I worry about being polite and she doesn't.”

For Grafton, her toughest book to write so far was “H” Is for Homicide, which deals with Los Angeles gang members who set up bogus car accidents. Being “so far out of my turf,” she read newspaper stories about gangs and contacted state insurance fraud officials and the Insurance Crime Prevention Institute, which provided her with valuable insight, including videos of actual crimes being committed.

Her favorite Kinsey Millhone book is “J” Is for Judgment, because it was a turning point for Grafton's writing psyche. Acting on complaints from readers about Millhone's foul language, Grafton had started censoring her writing, which she believes made it flat. She heard about a Los Angeles therapist who is a Jungian and, apprehensively, did three months of therapy by phone. He taught her about Ego, the aspects a person presents to the world, and Shadow, the things people repress because they're ashamed or embarrassed.

“When you write mysteries, you're always dealing with Shadow issues, the unconscious and the repressed pieces of your nature,” Grafton said. “Shadow is the one that tells me when a book isn't working, that little voice that says, ‘You cannot be serious about this.’”

So she stopped worrying about the world's expectations and instead let Kinsey just be herself.

Grafton, who divides her time between 4[frac12] acres in Montecito and a home in Louisville, seems grateful for her success. She donated her old Volkswagen Beetle (like the one that Millhone drives) for a raffle to benefit the Ensemble Theatre of Santa Barbara, gave $8,000 to train a local police dog and has a license plate that reads, “THNX KNS.”

“Everything I own is due to this woman,” she said.

Grafton also feels fortunate to have 4,000 people on her mailing list, all of whom receive a personalized note, annual Christmas card and a book-signing tour schedule. Name your baby Kinsey—as some 45 people have done—and she sends hand-painted “Kinsey” barrettes with a letter from Millhone explaining how to be a good little girl.

“It's my way of saying thank you,” Grafton said. “There are a lot of writers out there, a lot of books.”


Many of her fans ask about Millhone's future.

Henry Pitts, Millhone's lovable octogenarian landlord, will make it to the end, as likely will Rosie, the neighborhood Hungarian restaurateur, said Grafton. She doubts Millhone will ever learn to cook or have children, “but she could surprise me.” It's also doubtful that Millhone will toy with the Internet, DNA or cell phones, since “A” Is for Alibi is set in 1982 and “Z” Is for Zero will take place in 1990, when Millhone celebrates her 40th birthday.

The one thing Grafton knows is that Millhone will never go Hollywood. She's made her three grown children promise they will never sell the screen rights. (She's still working on her two granddaughters, one of whom is named Kinsey.)

“Nothing about Hollywood appeals to me,” said Grafton, who wrote for television in the '70s and '80s and penned the screenplay for her 1969 novel, The Lolly-Madonna War. “What I learned working there is you never sell them anything you care about.”

And she swears that if her writing quality diminishes, she'll quit before she gets to Z.

“I'll pack it in. I am not going to do it just for the sake of it. I'm not going to farm it out, cheat or recycle an old book,” she says.

And suppose she makes it to “Z” Is for Zero? What then?

“I'm gonna party, sweetheart!”

Publishers Weekly (review date 21 May 2001)

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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 runs a nursing home that's being investigated for Medicare fraud. His ex-wife, Fiona, hires Kinsey when it seems as though the police have given up on the search. Fiona thinks that he could be simply hiding out somewhere, especially since he's pulled a disappearance stunt twice before. However, Purcell's current wife, Crystal, believes that he may be dead. Kinsey is dubious about finding any new leads after so much time has elapsed. She's also worried about having to move out of the office space she now occupies in the suite owned by her lawyer, and between her interviews with suspects she tries to rent a new office from a pair of brothers whose mysterious background begins to make her suspicious. Grafton's Santa Teresa seems more like Ross Macdonald's town of the same name than ever before, with dysfunctional families everywhere jostling for the private eye's attention. The novel has a hard-edged, wintry ambience, echoed in Fiona Purcell's obsession with angular art deco furniture and architecture. Unfortunately, Grafton's evocation of the noir crime novels and styles of the 1940s, although atmospheric, doesn't make up for a lack of suspense and lackluster characters.

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 August 2002)

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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 impossible job. Whatever legal or medical records might have helped are long gone (though Kinsey's hopeful that Jane Doe's distinctive teeth may still tell a story); potential witnesses' memories have faded or been addled by repeating the same story too many times; and the two lead investigators are at serious risk, not from the perp, but from death of natural causes. The convoluted, fact-based tale [in “Q” Is for Quarry]—studded with masterful portraits of the dying detectives, a couple of dead-alive ex-cons, and the might-as-well-be-dead suspects—has run half its course before the victim is identified as a wild high-school girl who slept around so indiscriminately and exhaustively that half the population of little Quorum, California, seems to think her violent death was no more than she deserved.

Despite a bumper crop of Q's, the late-arriving whodunit is tangled and routine, and Kinsey's latest inconclusive flirtation with her own past—the owner of Grayson Quarry turns out to be the grandmother she's never spoken to—awaits resolution, perhaps in R Is for Relatives.