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M is for mystery Kinsey Millhone's creator: a woman of letters who's approaching mid-alphabet

THE BALTIMORE SUN

2009. Ten down, 16 to go.

It's not just letters that preoccupy Sue Grafton -- specifically, the letters that begin her best-selling mysteries. She began her series featuring detective Kinsey Millhone in 1982, with " 'A' Is for Alibi," and now, with the recent publication of " 'J' Is for Judgment," has worked her way through nearly half the alphabet.

No, it's a numbers game, too. She's 53. With 16 letters left, and by writing one book a year, Ms. Grafton figures she'll finish her ambitious series by the year 2009. It will be an endurance contest -- for her and her readers.

"I tell them, 'You better give up whiskey and cigarettes and wild women because you won't be alive when we get there,' " Ms. Grafton says, deadpan, and you see the source of Kinsey Millhone's trademark wisecracking style. "So they're all reforming."

She shakes her head and continues. "There's a woman named Helen who lives in a town somewhere in California, and she wrote to me after ' "E" Is for Evidence.' She said, 'I'm 74, and will you please hurry?' I wrote back, 'Helen, you'll only be 94, so it's no big deal.' Ms. Grafton looks up and continues with a sly smile. "She told me she's cutting back on her beer, but I think she's making that up."

Ms. Grafton had spent years as a writer for TV movies ("Sex and the Single Parent," "Nurse") when, unhappy with Hollywood and what it was doing to her writing, she began to write a mystery about a street-smart, sassy female detective.

"I used to be in such a rage about Hollywood," Ms.Grafton says, settling into a sofa in the lobby of a Washington hotel during a publicity swing last week. "But then I said to myself, 'If it bothers you that much, don't take the money.' So I quit taking the money, and I invented Kinsey Millhone as a way of getting out."

She set her book in Santa Teresa, a thinly disguised version of Santa Barbara, Calif., where she had lived for several years (and to where she has since moved back). She was 42 when "Alibi" came out, and some readers and reviewers didn't know what to make of it. What was a woman doing writing hard-boiled crime fiction? And with a female protagonist?

Tough-edged tales

Now Ms. Grafton's books are instant best sellers. Thanks to her books, and those by such authors as Patricia Cornwell, Sara Paretsky and Marcia Muller, it's no longer unusual to see that a woman can write tough-edged mysteries with a female lead character. Kinsey, cynical and irreverent, became a cultural hero to some who liked seeing a strong, confident woman in charge. Others just liked her attitude.

Here is how she describes her old boss in " 'J' Is for Judgment": "Mac has never been one to plague himself with attempts at fitness, and his body, at this point, resembles a drawing from a child's perspective: long arms and legs, foreshortened trunk with a little head stuck on top."

Or her Clintonesque love of junk food: "I took myself out to breakfast, loading up on fats and carbohydrates, nature's antidepressants."

With " 'J' Is for Judgment," though, Ms. Grafton found herself in an unaccustomed position. Not only was writing the book difficult -- in it, Kinsey finally deals with the deaths of her parents, who were killed in an auto accident when she was 5 -- but the acerbic detective seemed to be losing her old charm.

"I realized that some of the joy was leaving the writing," Ms.

Grafton says. "Part of that was, by the 10th book, the pressure was mounting. My profile is getting enough that I feel that there are too many eyes on me. Also, I get a fair amount of fan mail, a small portion of which is devoted to correcting my foul tongue, as well as other forms of finger-wagging and scolding.

"While I can ward that off intellectually, some of that had seeped down and without meaning to, I had begun to self-censor. So when I had come to a particularly juicy piece of cussing, I would say to myself, 'Now, Susan, do you really need to use the f-word? Could you just say, "Phooey"?' So I was deleting the most wonderful things, and then I realized that Kinsey was pouting. She was not happy."

Unhappy Kinsey

Kinsey, you see, "is always right behind me when I write, egging me on." Ms. Grafton says this seriously; she continues matter-of-factly that, when faced with a dilemma, she sometimes asks herself, "Now, what would Kinsey do?"

In this case, the answer was clear.

"Once I understood what I was doing, I had to correct some things," Ms. Grafton goes on. "One of the things I did was to walk around my house for two weeks cussing desperately, just to get some sass back. I started feeling a lot better. And I also decided I had to be willing to fail again. In essence, I simply gave myself up to the process. I said, 'I simply don't care anymore. I don't carewhat the critics will say, I don't care what the readers will say. I'm going to do this one for me."

The Grafton fan

"Grafton has an interesting cross-section of people who read her," says Paige Rose, co-owner of the Mystery Loves Company bookstore in Fells Point. "She has a lot of professional people, men and women. And once you're a Grafton fan, you're a Grafton fan. Her fans are very loyal.

"She is a bit violent, and some people don't like that. But the action moves very well. They're not intricately plotted; they're rock-'em-sock-'em."

Certainly, Ms. Grafton finds her readers can't get enough of Kinsey. She'll tell you with a bit of pride that some readers are naming their children after the detective ("Kinsey's going to be like the Tammy and Heather of the '90s. It used to be that they named their dogs and cats Kinsey, so maybe I'm moving up the food chain").

She estimates she has a mailing list of 1,200 correspondents, nearly all of whom want to talk about you-know-who.

"I got a letter from a woman who said in her family they never had anything to talk about at the dinner table until Kinsey Millhone came along," Ms. Grafton says. "And now they argue about her clothes and about what she is eating and disagree about what she will do next.

Right now, I'm getting a lot of letters from schoolchildren who are writing papers on me, which is very bizarre. I feel like a dead person. But I also got three letters, in a fairly short period of time, from daughters of women who had died of cancer. They would take my novels to share with their mothers during chemotherapy, and they said they'd written just to say how much the books had meant -- that they had given some moments of levity with their parents before their deaths. I mean, I just sat reading those letters with tears in my eyes."

Millhone mixes it up

In the mysteries, Kinsey doesn't mind mixing it up, or taking a punch (not to mention an occasional bullet). Ms. Grafton is that way as well, blending a willingness to lead with her chin with wry humor.

"When I made Kinsey Millhone a female character, I didn't do that as any kind of political statement," she says. "I did that because it was the only thing I knew -- the only thing I felt secure about, because at the time I was teaching myself to write mystery novels, as well as California law, forensics, toxicology and everything else that accompanies the form. But it was fairly irksome to be called a female author with a female private eye, because I thought I doing something that was much more in the tradition of the hard-boiled private eye.

"I made a very conscious decision not to become a member of Sisters in Crime [an organization for female mystery writers] because I don't want us to be thrown in together. I'm playing with the big boys and want to play by the big boys' rules. What's fun is to get in there tussling with the guys. To act like we're this whole separate precious thing, to me, defeats the purpose. Because writing has nothing to do with gender. It's not about male or female -- it's about whether you do it well, and do you make money for people?"

Ms. Grafton surely has, but she could make a lot more if she'd sell the movie rights to her books. That, she assures you, will not happen.

Not that Hollywood has been altogether bad to Sue Grafton. "Writing for television taught me structure, which is critical to a mystery -- or any kind of storytelling, in my opinion," she says. "It taught me to get into a scene and to get out of a scene -- economically. It taught me dialogue.

"What's destructive for writers is not the craft of the teleplay or the craft of the screenplay. It is the way that business is done in Hollywood. For instance, they pretend to value your work when in fact they don't. I talk about this because I was smart enough to get out, but when I was doing movies for television, people in Hollywood would come to me with a project they would be so excited about. Inevitably, it would be titled, 'Hookers on Crack.' They would always say the same things -- that this would be a quality production, that Meryl Streep was interested in it, and then they would say that the network was really high on it."

The last is said in a who-ya-tryin'-to-kid tone, and Ms. Grafton indeed sounds like quite the cynical private eye accustomed to filtering out the horse manure.

"That part might have been true," she adds sardonically, "because the networks had no taste whatsoever."

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