Sue Grafton’s first novel, “A is for Alibi,” was published in May 1982. Her incorrigible heroine, the private eye Kinsey Millhone, was 30 when first introduced to mystery readers.
In Grafton’s new novel, “W is for Wasted,” Millhone is a mere 38. Grafton says Kinsey has aged “one year for every two and half books” in the 23-story series that employs a letter of the alphabet in each title. From the very beginning, the author — with no small amount of foresight — knew she couldn’t tie her character to a traditional calendar.
“With 26 books, and assuming I couldn’t continue to write one a year, it was going to start looking silly,” says Grafton, who appears Oct. 7 at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland as a guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures. “Not that I don’t think 60-year-old women can’t hold their own, but in the tradition of the hard-boiled private eye, most of them aren’t of retirement age. I thought it was wiser to slow down her aging process. She is now 38, and I am 73. That doesn’t seem fair to me, but there you have it.”
Grafton, who speaks with just a hint of her native Kentucky accent, has benefited from this approach even as her character remains young. The Kinsey Millhone series is a perennial bestseller, and the books are exemplary exercises of how to construct a taut, riveting mystery, even if they are throwbacks. Because the stories are set in the 1980s, there are no cell phones, no laptops, no instant access to the World Wide Web.
Kinsey, like her literary ancestors, has to solve crime the old-fashioned way: through guile, reason and shoe leather.
“Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain and Ross MacDonald were the guys I read growing up, and they informed my sensibility when it came to the hard-boiled private eye,” Grafton says. “It was that sort of bleak tone that I admired. When it came time to try my hand at fiction, I couldn’t picture a police procedural or a little librarian solving crimes. That just didn’t interest me.”
While the details and setting are vintage ’80s, the stories Grafton tells are timeless. In “W is for Wasted,” Millhone is drawn into the world of the homeless when her name is found on a slip of paper in the clothes of a dead man found on a beach. Eventually, Millhone is able to link the death to the unsolved murder of a private detective. But first, Millhone must navigate the world of people who, through little fault of their own, have nowhere to call home.
Grafton says she has known some homeless people “in a very superficial way” near her residence in Santa Barbara, Calif.
“We had a guy named Beach Bob who died, and we had a funeral for him, a little service,” Grafton says, noting some of the homeless people she’s met are avid readers. “They love me because I bring them paperback books.”
There’s a touching eulogy at the end of the novel that might be one of the most profound passages Grafton has ever written, evidence that’s she’s not lost a bit of her skill. She does acknowledge that the series will end with the Z, but she’s not opposed to continuing to write about her heroine in some form.
“I will be close to 80 when I get to ‘Z is for Zero,’ ” Grafton says. “I want to see what kind of shape I’m in. I am willing to do stand-alones with Kinsey Millhone if she has adventures to share. I am not willing to write these books if I don’t have the mental acuity and if I don’t have the physical energy.
“These books are really hard, and they’re getting harder because I’m up against myself, trying not to repeat myself. I’m hoping the struggle itself will keep me on my game. I do not want to get lazy, I don’t want to take shortcuts, I don’t want to fake anything. If I don’t feel I can deliver a novel of quality, then I’m smarter hanging up my spurs.”
Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.