Better Lock the Door

Kinsey Millhone

“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…”

—Sue Grafton, A Is for Alibi

 

Kinsey Millhone First Story

A Is For Alibi

Kinsey Millhone first came to the pages of crime fiction when Sue Grafton created her in 1982 for A Is for Alibi. A former police officer turned private investigator, Kinsey was one of the earliest female investigators along with Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski. The novels make up the extremely popular Kinsey Millhone Alphabet Series.

Grafton set the stories in Santa Teresa, California, a fictionalized town based on Santa Barbara, California. Although books came out nearly a book a year, Grafton minimized Millhone’s aging by having each of the character’s years covered in three books.

Millhone was the model of a modern female detective, feisty and smart but not above going against the rules.

Backstory

The backstory for Millhone includes having a wealthy debutante mother who married her father against her parents’ wishes. Millhone’s parents were killed in an automobile crash when she was only five. She then moved in with her mother’s sister, Aunt Gin, the only one on her mother’s side who sided with her mom in the family split. Her aunt introduced her to peanut-butter and pickles sandwiches.

After three semesters at the local community college, Millhone dropped out and joined the Santa Teresa Police Department. She stayed with the department two years before quitting the force to become an investigator with California Fidelity, an insurance company where her aunt worked. Eventually, she went out on her own as a private investigator.

In A Is for Alibi, Millhone investigates the death of a prominent divorce lawyer. His wife had served in prison for his murder and wants Millhone to find the actual killer. The case grows harder because everyone Millhone talks with dies.

Although she seems obsessed with fashion, always describing a character’s attire when they meet, her own wardrobe consists primarily of jeans and turtleneck sweaters. She has one wrinkle-resistant little black dress for emergencies.

She stays in shape by running three miles every weekday.

Since Millhone stayed unmarried and childless throughout the series. Her ‘family’ consisted of her eighty-year-old landlord, Henry Pitts, who she adored, his siblings, Rosie, and numerous people she encountered. In M Is for Malice, she joins up with a cousin to form a business.

Origin of Millhone

Sue Grafton’s father wrote detective fiction and passed the love of the genre to his daughter. She began writing at eighteen and finished her first novel in four years. She completed six more, only two of which were published. Unable to find success, she turned to screenplays. For the next fifteen years, she wrote screenplays for television movies, including Sex and the Single Parent and Nurse. In collaboration with her husband, Steven Humphrey, she adapted the Agatha Christie novels A Caribbean Mystery and Sparkling Cyanide.

While going through a bitter divorce and custody battle that lasted six years, Grafton said later that she imagined ways to kill or maim her ex-husband, and she began writing them down.

Series with a theme had always fascinated her, like John D. MacDonald titles which include colors. She decided to use titles that included the alphabet, never realizing she may become endanger of running out of letters.

In an interview with the Guardian in 2013, Grafton admitted, “The process of writing informs her life and mine…. I think of us as one soul in two bodies and she got the good one…Often I feel she’s peering over my shoulder, whispering, nudging me and making bawdy remarks…It amused me that I invented someone who has gone on to support me. It amuses her, I’m sure, that she will live in this world long after I’m gone.”

The Series

To everyone’s surprise, including Grafton’s the series became a fan favorite. A new Millhone novel came out each year from 1982 until 2001 with P Is for Peril, then every two years until the last book, Y is for Yesterday, released in 2017. Each issue was anticipated, not for just the story, but also what word the author would choose for the title.

When asked why the title of book number 24 was simply X, she responded, “I’ve checked the penal codes in most states and xylophone isn’t a crime, so I’m stuck.”

Unfortunately, the series will end with Y. Sue Grafton passed away in 2017 at the age of 77 after battling cancer. Her daughter released a statement on Facebook, “Although we knew this was coming, it was unexpected and fast. She had been fine up until just a few days ago, and then things moved quickly.

“Sue always said that she would continue writing as long as she had the juice. Many of you know that she was adamant that her books would never be turned into movies or TV shows, and in the same vein, she would never allow a ghost writer to write in her name. Because of all of those things, and out of the deep abiding love and respect for our dear sweet Sue, as far as we in the family are concerned, the alphabet now ends at Y.”

Acclaim for Millhone and Grafton

B Is for Burglar and C Is for Corpse were selected for the first two Anthony Awards for Best Novel (1986 and 1987) ever awarded at the annual Bouchercon. She won it again in 1991 for G Is for Gumshoe. The Private Eye Writers of America awarded three (B, G, and K) Shamus Award.

In 2008, Grafton was awarded the Cartier Dagger by the British Crime Writers’ Association for her lifetime achievement. The next year, she received the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America (MWA). In 2013, Bouchercon presented her with their Lifetime Achievement Award.

The Private Eye Writers of America nominated her for a 2014 Shamus Award for Best Hardcover Novel, which she had already won three times.

P. Putnam’s Sons partnered with MWA to create the Sue Grafton Memorial Award honoring the Best Novel in a Series featuring a female protagonist who has the hallmarks of Millhone.

But even more than the awards, the love from Grafton’s fans showed how much they enjoyed her stories. Her books are sold in 28 countries and in 26 languages. Millhone had found an audience who had been waiting for her.

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3 Comments

  1. Lida Sideris

    What a great post (and tribute) to Sue Grafton, one of my favorite authors. I’d forgotten how much I loved the opening lines of A is for Alibi and Ms. Grafton’s version of the modern female detective. Kinsey’s voice was strong, her personality distinct and the mysteries compelling. I appreciated the background on Ms. Grafton and Kinsey, which I’d also forgotten. Looks like I have to go back and re-read the series.

  2. Judy Penz Sheluk

    Loved this post and shared. I have read every one of Grafton’s books and was so looking forward to meeting her at Left Coast Crime in Vancouver 2019, where she was to be Guest of Honor. Unfortunately, she passed away before that could happen though I did meet her daughter and was able to share a Kinsey story: At a Conference (Bloody Words) we were asked to dress up as our favorite character at the banquet. I’m not much for dressing up, but I did own a little black dress. So I wore that and told everyone I was Kinsey Millhone. Her daughter said her mom would have loved that story. I will say that if you start with A and continue, you’ll see how much Grafton evolved as a writer. She is missed. Thank you for this post.

  3. Bellamy

    Enjoyed the Milhone recap. Thanks for posting.

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