I have to confess I had to blink back a couple of tears when I wrote my review of Y is for Yesterday, which has turned out to be the last novel in the Kinsey Millhone series by Sue Grafton.
As I’m sure I’ve written elsewhere, I discovered A is for Alibi, the first in the series, in the late 1980s. The moment I began reading, I loved the feisty private investigator with her sardonic asides and no-nonsense attitude to life and criminals. But the stories were about much more than crime. Kinsey had an intriguing backstory concerning her family.
This began to play out over the series, adding an extra layer to the books.
Then there was Henry, her neighbour and landlord, who was her sounding board, protector and best friend throughout the series. From time to time, his colourful brood of relatives popped in to lighten a story.
We had Rosie, the owner of Kinsey’s local eatery where Hungarian dishes, made with various cuts of offal, complemented by cheap white wine, never failed to raise a smile. Then there were the police officers she knew, the detectives who helped her and vice versa, and an enormously entertaining support cast that you looked forward to meeting again in future stories.
I think Sue Grafton brought something new and different to the private detective novel. There was no room for world weary detectives with smoky offices and cynical asides. She created a protagonist, who on the surface was not much different from you and me. She didn’t come with excess baggage, worried about taxes and parking while she struggled to make a living. She was a sucker for hard luck stories, fiercely independent, but loyal to her friends. But she had attitude and balls, tenacity and wit, often putting her life on the line as she did her job.
You felt you knew Kinsey. She was someone you could talk to, someone who would support you. She was someone you wanted as a friend. But she’d tell you straight if you were wrong. And fight for you if you were right, whatever the odds.
Sue Grafton showed me a different way to write the private detective novel, inspiring me to create Kent Fisher, an ordinary man who would learn to solve murders. He had wit, humour and tenacity, a love of animals and the underdog.
When a small independent publisher in the United States published the first novel, No Accident, in June 2016, I sent a message through Facebook to Sue Grafton. I never expected her to read it. Let only reply, but she did, wishing me a long a productive career.
I couldn’t believe it. My favourite author was talking to me.
It was the start of a conversation that ran for six months. I asked her lots of questions, she replied candidly, sometimes surprising me with her honesty about her early struggles as an author, about the problems of writers’ block and how long it took her to write a book.
I believe she was an intensely private person, who still seemed baffled by her success and struggling with the pressures it brought – as if there weren’t enough challenges, having to produce 26 novels eventually.
Sadly, she didn’t quite make it, but her legacy will live for many years. I’m sure new fans will discover Kinsey Millhone and come to enjoy her adventures as much as I have. While not every story reaches the same dizzy heights, the novels never fail to entertain. They offer a glimpse of life in 1980s California, in a fictional seaside town, lapped by the Pacific Ocean, where the smell of Henry’s baking beckons you over for a chat and a glass of wine as you try to solve some of the most intriguing and original crimes you can imagine.
U will be missed, Sue Grafton.