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January 5, 2018

Remembering Sue Grafton: The Alphabet Now Ends at Y

I first discovered Sue Grafton’s Alphabet series while volunteering at the local library in the seventh grade. I overheard a patron come up to the librarian with a copy of Q IS FOR QUARRY and asked her if she had the unreleased R yet. The idea that there was a series of books that was released in alphabetical order delighted my OCD. I went over to the mystery shelf, picked up an omnibus of A through C, and devoured it in two weeks.

I spent most of that year reading through the series in order up to Q. Kinsey Millhone and her cast of characters became friends over that year. What amazed me more than anything was that Sue managed never to write the same story twice, something that became increasingly impressive as the series grew larger. While the day-to-day machinations of Kinsey’s life were comfortingly familiar, her escapades at work were certainly not routine.

After my initial binge, the next letter would be, more than any other, the book I looked forward to arriving in the mail at The Book Report Network the most. Coming out every two years, they were markers in my life, and I tie each one to the time in my life I first read it. R was published during my freshman year in high school. U and V were distractions in college (below is a picture of me with Sue at a book signing for U IS FOR UNDERTOW in 2009), while W and X were read on the train commuting to Manhattan for work. This year’s Y IS FOR YESTERDAY came out right before I took a trip to Europe, and I read it flying over, finishing it off on a train in France. I didn’t know at that point that my journey with Kinsey was complete.

Every Grafton fan both anticipated and dreaded the coming Z IS FOR ZERO. We looked forward to seeing how she would tie up some loose ends in Kinsey’s life, and we were somewhat comforted that even though the alphabet would be done, Grafton wasn’t opposed to a few stand-alones if she had the stamina. Y seemed to set the stage for answering questions readers had had for decades, one major one already tied up neatly. The epilogue takes place in March 1990, stretching the series outside of its traditional 1980s timeline for the first time. (I was born just two months prior; when I read that, I was glad to know that in some alternate reality, Kinsey and I coexisted on this Earth.)

Those questions will remain unanswered; Sue’s untimely death last month means that the alphabet will end at Y, something made clear by her family in accordance with her wishes that her books never be ghostwritten. There was no plot figured out yet, no notes. She still may have figured out what would happen to Kinsey and company, but there will be no story framework for us to find that out.

Sue Grafton’s life’s work with Kinsey Millhone leaves behind one of the greatest mystery series of all time, a story arc that never repeated plots and came with a cast of endearing characters in between solving mysteries, which got devoted readers through even the few books that weren’t stellar hits. The structure of the alphabet titles was unprecedented, leaving room for a finite but vast canon, and wondering what the next letter would stand for became a mystery in itself in between books. (That X wasn’t “for” anything certainly threw readers for a loop.)

These 25 titles will most certainly live on, already having proven themselves durable for 35 years. They will continue bringing their 1980s simplicity to new generations, marking their territory wide across the shelves of libraries and bookstores from A to Y.