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Sue Grafton

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Sue Grafton
Grafton in 2009
Sue Taylor Grafton

(1940-04-24)April 24, 1940
DiedDecember 28, 2017(2017-12-28) (aged 77)
Alma materUniversity of Louisville
SpouseSteven F. Humphrey
Writing career
Period1964–2017 (first published novel: 1967)
Notable worksKinsey Millhone Alphabet series

Sue Taylor Grafton (April 24, 1940 – December 28, 2017) was an American author of detective novels. She is best known as the author of the "alphabet series" ("A" Is for Alibi, etc.) featuring private investigator Kinsey Millhone in the fictional city of Santa Teresa, California. The daughter of detective novelist C. W. Grafton, she said the strongest influence on her crime novels was author Ross Macdonald. Before her success with this series, she wrote screenplays for television movies.

Early life[edit]

Sue Grafton was born in Louisville, Kentucky, to C. W. Grafton (1909–1982) and Vivian Harnsberger, both of whom were the children of Presbyterian missionaries.[2]

Her father was a municipal bond lawyer who also wrote mystery novels and her mother was a former high school chemistry teacher.[3] Her father enlisted in the Army during World War II when she was three and returned when she was five, after which her home life started falling apart. Both parents became alcoholics and Grafton said "From the age of five onward, I was left to raise myself".[4][5]

Grafton and her older sister Ann grew up in Louisville, where she went to Atherton High School.[5][6] She attended the University of Louisville (first year) and Western Kentucky State Teachers College (now Western Kentucky University) in her sophomore and junior years[7] before graduating from the University of Louisville in 1961 with a bachelor's degree in English Literature and minors in humanities and fine arts. She was a member of Pi Beta Phi.[8]

After graduating, Grafton worked as a hospital admissions clerk, a cashier, and a medical secretary in Santa Monica and Santa Barbara, California.[8]

Grafton's mother killed herself in 1960 after returning home from an operation to remove esophageal cancer brought on by years of drinking and smoking. Her father died in 1982, a few months before "A" Is for Alibi was published.[9]

Writing career[edit]

Grafton's father was enamored of detective fiction and wrote at night. He taught Grafton lessons on the writing and editing process and groomed her to be a writer. Inspired by her father, Grafton began writing when she was 18 and finished her first novel four years later. She continued writing and completed six more novels. Only two of these seven novels (Keziah Dane and The Lolly-Madonna War) were published.[5][10] Grafton would later destroy the manuscripts for her five early, unpublished novels.[11]

Unable to find success with her novels, Grafton turned to screenplays.[12] Grafton worked for the next 15 years writing screenplays for television movies, including Sex and the Single Parent; Mark, I Love You; and Nurse. Grafton sold the movie rights for The Lolly-Madonna War and co-wrote the screenplay for the feature film. The adaptation, released in 1973 as Lolly-Madonna XXX, starred Rod Steiger and Jeff Bridges. Her screenplay for Walking Through the Fire earned a Christopher Award in 1979. In collaboration with her husband, Steven Humphrey, she also adapted the Agatha Christie novels A Caribbean Mystery and Sparkling Cyanide for television and co-wrote A Killer in the Family and Love on the Run.[8][13] She is credited with the story upon which the screenplay for the made for TV movie Svengali (1983) was based.[14][15]

Her experience as a screenwriter taught her the basics of structuring a story, writing dialogue, and creating action sequences. Grafton then felt ready to return to writing fiction.[13] While going through a "bitter divorce and custody battle that lasted six long years", Grafton imagined ways to kill or maim her ex-husband. Her fantasies were so vivid that she decided to write them down.[16]

Alphabet series[edit]

Sue Grafton

Grafton had been fascinated by mysteries series whose titles were related, such as John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee series, each of which included a color in the title, and Harry Kemelman's Rabbi Small series, each of which included a day of the week in the title. While reading Edward Gorey's The Gashlycrumb Tinies, a picture book with an alphabetized list of ways for children to die, Grafton decided to write a series of novels whose titles would follow the alphabet. She immediately sat down and made a list of all of the crime-related words that she knew.[13]

These became the series now known as the "alphabet novels", featuring sleuth and private investigator Kinsey Millhone. The series is set in Santa Teresa, a fictionalized version of Santa Barbara.[17] Grafton followed the lead of Ross Macdonald, who created the fictional version of the city.[18] Grafton described Kinsey Millhone as her alter ego, "the person I might have been had I not married young and had children."[9]

The series begins with "A" Is for Alibi, published and set in 1982. "B" Is for Burglar followed in 1985; after that, Grafton usually put out a further book in the series every year or two.[19] Each novel's title combined a letter with a word, except X. After the publication of "G" Is for Gumshoe, Grafton was able to quit her screenwriting job and focus on her novel writing.[16]

Though written between 1982 and 2017, the Kinsey Millhone novels are all set in the 1980s, with each novel chronologically taking place only a few weeks (or at most a few months) after the previous one. The final novel ("Y" Is for Yesterday) is set in 1989.

The name of each book was a source of speculation.[20] In May 2009, Grafton told Media Bistro that she was "just trying to figure out how to get from "U" is for Undertow to "Z" Is for Zero"[21] and that "just because she knows the endgame title for Z [...] doesn't mean she knows what V, W, X, and Y will be".[19] Grafton said that the series would end with "Z" Is for Zero, but she died before she could begin writing it. Her daughter said Grafton would never allow a ghostwriter to write in her name and "as far as we in the family are concerned, the alphabet now ends at Y."[22]

Grafton's novels have been published in 28 countries and in 26 languages.[22] She refused to sell the film and television rights, because writing screenplays "cured" her of the desire to work with Hollywood.[13] (TV movies in Japan, however, were adapted from "B" is for Burglar and "D" is for Deadbeat.)[11] Grafton told her children her ghost would haunt them if they sold the film rights after her death.[23] The books in the series were on The New York Times Best Seller list for an aggregate of about 400 weeks. F is for Fugitive was the first, entering at number 10 on the paperback list; by 1995 "L" is for Lawless entered the best seller list at number one followed by ten more in the series.[24]

Writing style[edit]

Grafton's style is characteristic of hardboiled detective fiction, according to the authors of 'G' is for Grafton, who describe it as "laconic, breezy, wise-cracking".[25] The novels are framed as reports Kinsey writes in the course of her investigations, which are signed off in the epilogue of each novel. The first-person narrative allows the reader to see through the eyes of Kinsey, who chronicles various descriptions of "eccentric buildings and places", giving depth to the narrative.[26] The repeated descriptions of the Santa Barbara shoreline (chronicled as Kinsey's early morning runs), are "skillful, evocative writing of a caliber that takes Grafton well beyond being categorized as 'merely' a writer of detective fiction and into the so-called mainstream of 'serious' American fiction."[27]


Year Title Award Ref.
1986 "B" Is for Burglar Anthony Awards for Best Novel [28][29][30][31]
1986 "B" Is for Burglar Shamus Award for Best P. I. Hardcover Novel [29][32]
1987 "C" Is for Corpse Anthony Awards for Best Novel [28][29][30][31]
1987 "The Parker Shotgun" from Mean Streets Anthony Awards for Best Short Story [29][30][31]
1991 "G" Is for Gumshoe Anthony Awards for Best Novel [30][31]
1991 "G" Is for Gumshoe Shamus Award for Best P. I. Hardcover Novel [29][32]
1995 "K" Is for Killer Shamus Award for Best P. I. Hardcover Novel [29][32]
2000 YWCA of Lexington Smith-Breckinridge: Distinguished Woman of Achievement Award [33]
2003 Shamus Lifetime Achievement Award
2004 Ross Macdonald Literary Award
2008 Crime Writers' Association's Cartier Diamond Dagger
2009 Mystery Writers of America's Grand Master Award [34]
2013 Bouchercon's Lifetime Achievement Award [35]
2014 Character: Kinsey Millhone Shamus Award for Best P. I. Series Character
2014 Shamus Award for Best P. I. Hardcover Novel
2018 "Y" is for Yesterday Bill Crider Award for Novel in a Series [36]

Personal life[edit]

Grafton first married in 1959, aged 18, to James L. Flood, with whom she had a son and a daughter. The two divorced by the time Grafton graduated from college in 1961. Her second marriage was with Al Schmidt in 1962 but it ended with protracted divorce and custody proceedings over their daughter.[34]

She married her third husband, Steven F. Humphrey, in 1978.[10] They divided their time between Santa Barbara, California, and Louisville, Kentucky;[5] Humphrey taught at universities in both cities.[16] In 2000, the couple bought and later restored Lincliff, a 28-acre (11 ha) Louisville estate once owned by hardware baron William Richardson Belknap.[5][37]

Grafton died at Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara on December 28, 2017, after a two-year battle with cancer of the appendix.[1][22][38][10]

In 2019, an award in Grafton's memory was established by G.P. Putnam's Sons and is under the aegis of the Mystery Writers of America.[39]


Alphabet Mystery series[edit]

Essays and short stories[edit]

  • "Teaching a Child" (2013) – essay in the anthology Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting, published by W. W. Norton & Company.
  • Kinsey and Me (2013) – a collection of nine Kinsey Millhone short stories along with 12 other short stories about Grafton's own mother. The Kinsey Millhone stories, with one exception, appeared in magazines and mystery anthologies between 1986 and 1991. The dozen other stories, none previously published, feature Kit Blue, who, Grafton said, "is simply a younger version of myself."[40] The book also includes a preface, introductions to the two separate story collections, and a previously published essay on hard-boiled private investigators.
  • The Lying Game (2003) – a Kinsey Millhone short story which appeared in the September 2003 special 40th anniversary Lands' End catalogue. It also appeared as a separate pamphlet given to attendees at Malice Domestic 2011 conference, where Grafton was recognized for Lifetime Achievement. It is included in Kinsey and Me.
  • If You Want Something Done Right . . . (Published 2020) An unpublished story found among Sue Grafton's papers by her husband after her death and originally published in ’Deadly Anniversaries, edited by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini.[41] Reprinted in The Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2021, edited by Lee Child.

In popular culture[edit]

Grafton's introduction of a young, no-nonsense female private detective in the Alphabet Mystery series was ground-breaking at the time when A is for Alibi was first released in 1982. Until the creation of Kinsey Milhone and V.I. Warshawski, created by Sarah Paretsky, in Indemnity Only, also in 1982, private detectives in fiction were almost always male.[42]

  • In the "Mayham" episode of The Sopranos, Carmela sits by Tony's bedside in the hospital, reading Sue Grafton's "G" Is for Gumshoe.[43]
  • In the "Local Ad" episode of The Office, Phyllis goes to a Sue Grafton book signing at the mall to try to get her to be in the Dunder-Mifflin Scranton branch commercial.[44] She is told by Michael Scott not to take no for an answer. After waiting in line, Phyllis meets Grafton, only to be rebuffed by her.[44] Phyllis continues to ask until she is thrown out of the store in front of all her friends. Meanwhile, Andy and Creed talk about how "crazy hot" the author is.
  • A scene in the film Stranger than Fiction shows Prof. Hilbert reading the Sue Grafton novel "I" Is for Innocent while serving as a lifeguard.[45][46]
  • In the Superego podcast Season 3 Episode 14, guest star, actor and comedian, Rob Delaney impersonates Sue Grafton.[47]
  • Sketch comedy group "The Whitest Kids U' Know" parodied Grafton in their sketch "A Is For".
  • Kinsey Millhone is featured in cameo appearances in crime novels by other authors. Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller have their fictional detective spot Millhone at a convention in Chicago. Sara Paretsky has her sleuth V. I. Warshawski envy Millhone's organization.[48]
  • Mick Herron has his fictional detective Zöe Bohm drive a loaned orange VW with a map of Santa Teresa, California in the glovebox in Why We Die.
  • In the ninth episode of the first season of Tracey Wigfield sitcom Great News ("Carol Has A Bully"), the character Carol (Andrea Martin) secretly reads a fictional Sue Grafton book, "S is for Sex Murder" when she is supposed to be studying.


  1. ^ a b Ellis, Ralph (December 29, 2017). "Sue Grafton, mystery writer who based titles on the alphabet, dies at 77". CNN. Retrieved January 14, 2018.
  2. ^ Ward, Kat (August 9, 2015). "Sue Grafton In Conversation". hometown-pasadena.com. Archived from the original on December 13, 2019. Retrieved September 6, 2023.
  3. ^ "Kinsey Millhone's PI Report on Sue Grafton". Sue Grafton official website. Archived from the original on April 22, 2017. Retrieved December 31, 2017.
  4. ^ Schudel, Matt (December 29, 2017). "Sue Grafton, author of best-selling 'alphabet' mysteries, dies at 77". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on December 30, 2017. Retrieved December 30, 2017.
  5. ^ a b c d e Myers, Marc (August 22, 2017). "Author Sue Grafton's Scary Childhood Home". The Wall Street Journal. Archived from the original on October 11, 2017. Retrieved December 30, 2017.
  6. ^ Shanklin, Sherlene (December 29, 2017). "Hometown Hero, local author Sue Grafton dies at 77". WHAS-TV. Archived from the original on December 29, 2017. Retrieved December 30, 2017.
  7. ^ "Questions and Answers". Sue Grafton Website. Archived from the original on March 28, 2007. Retrieved February 8, 2007.
  8. ^ a b c "The Kinsey Report". Sue Grafton Website. Archived from the original on November 18, 2006. Retrieved February 8, 2007.
  9. ^ a b Crace, John (March 18, 2013). "Sue Grafton: 'My childhood ended when I was five'". The Guardian. Archived from the original on September 10, 2017. Retrieved December 31, 2017.
  10. ^ a b c Genzlinger, Neil (December 29, 2017). "Sue Grafton, Whose Detective Novels Spanned the Alphabet, Dies at 77". The New York Times. Retrieved December 30, 2017.
  11. ^ a b Carlson, Michael (January 3, 2018). "Sue Grafton obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved February 23, 2018.
  12. ^ "'Lolly-Madonna' changed lives". Anchorage Daily News. July 8, 1973. p. 14.
  13. ^ a b c d "A Conversation with Sue Grafton". Sue Grafton Website. 1996. Archived from the original on December 31, 2006. Retrieved February 8, 2007.
  14. ^ O'Connor, John J. (March 9, 1983). "TV Movie: 'Svengali'". The New York Times. Retrieved June 12, 2011.
  15. ^ "More credits for'Svengali'". The New York Times. Retrieved June 12, 2011.
  16. ^ a b c White, Claire E. "A Conversation with Sue Grafton". Writers Write. Retrieved February 8, 2007.
  17. ^ Brantingham, Barney (July 1, 2008). "W Is for Writers Conference; Sue Grafton Is Kinsey Millhone". Santa Barbara Independent. Retrieved August 2, 2011.
  18. ^ "Bestselling Mystery Writer Sue Grafton To Speak at Annual Literary Voices Event". The Metropolitan Library System of Oklahoma County. 2007. Archived from the original on July 11, 2007. Retrieved February 8, 2007.
  19. ^ a b Hogan, Ron (May 1, 2009). "Conversations with the Grand Masters". GalleyCat. Media Bistro. Retrieved December 30, 2017.
  20. ^ Brantingham, Barney (April 29, 2010). "Just Who Is Kinsey Millhone?". Santa Barbara Independent. Retrieved December 30, 2017.
  21. ^ Pitz, Marylynne (October 7, 2013). "Sue Grafton: Writing her way through the alphabet". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Pittsburgh, PA: Block Communications. Retrieved December 30, 2017.
  22. ^ a b c Loosemore, Bailey (December 29, 2017). "Sue Grafton, internationally acclaimed mystery author and Louisville native, dies". Louisville Courier-Journal. Retrieved December 30, 2017.
  23. ^ Richards, Linda L. (1997). ""G" Is for Grafton: Sue Grafton's Murderous Moments". January Magazine. Retrieved February 8, 2007.
  24. ^ Cowles, Gregory (January 5, 2018). "Before Sue Grafton Was a Star". The New York Times. Retrieved January 16, 2018.
  25. ^ Kaufman (1997), 385
  26. ^ Kaufman (1997), 386
  27. ^ Kaufman (1997), 390
  28. ^ a b "AnthonyAwards". Fantastic Fiction. Retrieved February 8, 2007.
  29. ^ a b c d e f "Bouchercon World Mystery Convention: Anthony Awards and History". Bouchercon.info. Retrieved March 5, 2012.
  30. ^ a b c d "The Anthony Awards: A Literary Award for Crime Fiction". Crime Fiction Awards. Retrieved July 31, 2022.
  31. ^ a b c d "Every Winner of the Anthony Award for Best Novel, Assembled For Your Crime Reading Pleasure". CrimeReads. October 31, 2019. Retrieved July 31, 2022.
  32. ^ a b c "Sue Grafton". Fantastic Fiction. Retrieved February 8, 2007.
  33. ^ "YWCA to honor Grafton". Lexington Herald-Leader. June 4, 2000. p. H5.
  34. ^ a b Powell, Steven (2012). 100 American Crime Writers. Palgrave Macmillan UK. pp. 138–41. ISBN 978-0-230-52537-5. Retrieved December 30, 2017.
  35. ^ "History of Guests of Honor". Bouchercon World Mystery Convention. Archived from the original on September 13, 2016. Retrieved July 5, 2014.
  36. ^ "The 2018 Anthony Award Winners". CrimeReads. September 10, 2018. Retrieved July 31, 2022.
  37. ^ Ward, Logan (2014). "Sue Grafton's Kentucky Garden". Garden & Gun. Archived from the original on December 30, 2017. Retrieved December 30, 2017.
  38. ^ "Mystery writer Sue Grafton dies in California". www.msn.com. Archived from the original on December 30, 2017. Retrieved December 29, 2017.
  39. ^ "G.P. Putnam's Sons Launches Sue Grafton Memorial Award". publishersweetly.com. February 21, 2019. Retrieved February 2, 2022.
  40. ^ Sue Grafton, "Introduction," Kinsey and Me - stories, G. P. Putnam, 1993, p. xvi
  41. ^ Otto Prenzler, "Forward", The Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2021, edited by Lee Child, The Mysterious Press, New York, p. xiv and "Contents", n.p.
  42. ^ Kim, Victoria (December 30, 2017). "Famed mystery writer Sue Grafton loses battle against cancer". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 6, 2018.
  43. ^ Schwarzbaum, Lisa (January 13, 2007). "The Coma-Back Kid". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved December 3, 2008.
  44. ^ a b Fenno, Christine (October 28, 2007). "The Office: See Spot Not Run". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved December 3, 2008.
  45. ^ Crust, Kevin (November 10, 2006). "He's hearing things". Los Angeles Times. p. E1.
  46. ^ Silvis, Steffen (April 11, 2007). "One character in search of an author". The Prague Post.
  47. ^ "Sue Grafton – The Superego Podcast: Profiles In Self-Obsession". Gosuperego.com. July 1, 2012. Retrieved October 17, 2012.
  48. ^ Everett, Todd (May 23, 1991). "Mystery Town: Whodunit author Sue Grafton lives in Santa Barbara and sets her tales in Santa Teresa". Los Angeles Times. p. J15.


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]