There are authors’ deaths, announced casually on the radio, that provoke an involuntary cry of loss. The recent death of Sue Grafton, author of the alphabetically themed Kinsey Millhone detective novels, was one such. How could you not mourn a writer with whom you’d kept company – and 25 books – for 36 years? An added sadness was that she would not now complete her task of a book for every letter of the alphabet. We had had Y Is for Yesterday (2017) and awaited, confidently, Z Is for Zero. Except that now it won’t be. ‘In our family’, said one of her daughters, ‘the alphabet now ends with Y.’
I first read her in 1982, a year which, coincidentally, saw the introduction of two giants of female private-eye mysteries. Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone made her bow in A Is for Alibi while Sara Paretsky introduced V. I. Warshawski in Indemnity Only. I discovered there was another more painful connection between them: both writers’ childhoods were shaped by their mothers’ alcoholism. For Sara Paretsky, childhood was a life of domestic drudgery as the main carer for three siblings and a martinet father. For Sue Grafton, aeons of neglect and an absent father allowed her to work her way unimpeded from Nancy Drew to Raymond Chandler. Her early writing career was spent in television. To write her way out of it, she turned back to her first love, detective fiction.
I say detective, not simply crime fiction, because to purists the distinctions between crime, mystery and detective fiction are finely calibrated. In her autobiographical Kinsey and Me (2013) Grafton pays her dues to her mentor, S. S. Van Dine who, in 1928, first laid down the rules for detective fiction. Self-evidently, he says, there must be a detective detecting, and the ‘I’ of the narrative must be assumed to be revealing all the information they know. The murderer must be someone who has been visible throughout the plot – no new c
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