Sue Grafton celebrates 30 years with Kinsey Millhone, the trend-setting heroine of the Alphabet Detective series, with this unique and introspective look at their remarkable partnership. I recall snapping up a copy of A IS FOR ALIBI when it first hit bookstores in 1982, and it left me chomping at the bit for B IS FOR BURGLAR and each one after that. I was not alone. That saucy, self-assured, off-the-wall, female private investigator who cared more about justice than social convention was just right for the laid-back, anything-goes 1980s. Kinsey rattled around her fictional California seaside town in a beat-up Volkswagen Beetle, with her iconic wrinkle-free black dress stuffed in the glove compartment next to her handgun. She was ready to roll if the occasion called for a formal setting, but if things got rough, she was loaded for action.
The series was a sensation from the start, providing a model for feisty, self-assured female protagonists for the next several decades. What a challenge to a novice mystery writer who was helping put her first husband through college writing screenplays. To jump off the cliff with a book that, if it sold, meant you had to come up with 25 more? Pure Sue Grafton gutsiness, colorfully expressed through the impetuous Kinsey Millhone.
"This tasty little book is just the appetizer we need while we wait for the main course to arrive in time for summer reading with W IS FOR…, leaving only three more to the end of the alphabet."
KINSEY AND ME comes in three parts. Our fearless private investigator appears in the first 13 brisk, cut-to-the-chase short mysteries. These were originally published in their entirety as magazine stories between 1986 and 1991 after the Alphabet series was successfully launched. Here Grafton trims the page-filling fat necessary to the novel, each ending with a quirky twist.
In what she calls the entre’acte, “An Eye for an I: Justice, Morality, the Nature of the Hard Boiled Private Investigator, and All That Existential Stuff,” Grafton treats us to a short, short course on the differences among a mystery, detective, and crime novel. The title is almost as long as the dissertation but enlightening nonetheless, and sets the stage for the stories at the end of the book featuring a different character, Kit Blue.
Grafton says that while Kinsey is her alter-ego, Kit is the personification of her darker side that emerged after the tragic death of her mother. These short stories are not mysteries, but rather a deeply introspective chronicle of a child who more or less raised herself from the age of five as her alcoholic mother followed a long downward spiral. Kinsey’s early character reflected some of this abandonment, but this intensely personal brief history provides fans and critics alike a possible explanation as to why our devil-may-care Kinsey took a dark turn about halfway through the series. These last, very brief stories in the book were written during a 10-year period after her mother’s passing --- an event that led to a more introspective period in her writing.
This tasty little book is just the appetizer we need while we wait for the main course to arrive in time for summer reading with W IS FOR…, leaving only three more to the end of the alphabet. For her fans, who have been known to lay bets on whether or not she’d finish the marathon while either she or her readers were still around to see her cross the finish line, we’re betting on Grafton to pick up the prize. Kinsey is fortunate to have aged far more slowly than the rest of us. Grafton’s formula is one year in Kinsey’s age for every two and a half books, now making Kinsey in her late 30s. She still uses pay phones, the criss-cross directory for research, and keeps client data on three-by-five cards. At least she has stopped cutting her own hair with her manicure scissors. Sometimes conventionality is a good thing.
Now if only those of us who were kids when we first met her could figure out a way to stop time...
Reviewed by Roz Shea on January 9, 2013