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.
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).
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.
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.