Kinsey Millhone was everything I wanted to be: a crime-solving sleuth who had good friends, a running route on a beach, a tidy apartment, and an adorable car. She influenced me in ways she would never imagine, particularly since she was a fictional character and our worlds never intersected.
Of course, the credit here is all due to Sue Grafton, the mystery novelist who created the enduring character; the mystery novelist who died today, so close to the end of 2017 that it’s probably too late for any end-of-the-year media memorials because, with two days still left in the year, all those stories were produced ten days earlier.
Here’s a brief list of things I loved and will continue to love about Kinsey and Sue:
The Decade: Kinsey Millhone investigated crimes in the 1980s. Maybe not everyone’s favorite decade, but for crime fighting, it was where she started – and where she stayed. An online world and cell phones didn’t get in the way of the action, nor did they provide easy answers for the seemingly easiest of questions (Google maps? Nope. Kinsey had a Thomas Guide in her trunk, quarters for a payphone, and paper for taking notes.)
Her Decade: Kinsey was the 30-something PI who fueled my fantasies when I was younger, and then when I was older. I wanted (make that want) to be like her.
Her Car: Kinsey’s VW Bug was California beach cool perfection. You can’t have a car that classic in some place like, say, Seattle. I know this to be true because I tried, with a 1963 roll-top Beetle (think Herbie the Love Bug) that deserved a drier place and a better owner. If I were Kinsey, I could have pulled this off, maybe even in rain-soaked and rust-the-bottom-of-your-old-car Seattle.
Her Apartment: I may have drawn a floor plan or two of her apartment in the notebook I keep in my nightstand drawer (I have a thing for drawing floor plans). Kinsey’s garage apartment, both before and then after it was rebuilt post explosion, came to the forefront of my floor planning obsession recently when I briefly fantasized about building a backyard cottage (in my head: “And it will be just like Kinsey’s …”). I need to also mention and send a toast to Kinsey’s landlord/friend, Henry Pitts. This is who we all want to have next door – an 80-something retired baker. Who is your friend, with just the right amount of distance. And he bakes.
Her Town: I’ve been to Santa Barbara only three or four times, but I like to think I appreciated it even more because each time was soon after I’d been immersed in the world of Santa Teresa. Santa Barbara may be jaw-dropping beautiful, but seeing it as Kinsey’s town makes it infinitely more dimensional.
Her Running Route: Kinsey gets up and runs three miles (or so) every weekday. It’s like brushing her teeth, just something she does. There’s no obsession over goals or building her mileage up safely to avoid injuries. She just does it. And then she brushes her teeth. Presumably.
Her Clothes: Jeans and a black turtleneck, and Kinsey’s ready for a chase, surveillance, or interrogation. I’ll admit to a time or two wishing she’d think a bit more about this, but that says a lot more about me and my superficiality, so let’s move on …
On Not Being Stephanie Plum: I’m a librarian, and there may have been a thousand times when I heard or read people saying “if you like Sue Grafton, you’ll like …” which would inevitably end up with a recommendation for Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series. Maybe you’d like that series, but they really don’t have that much in common other than in the 1990s we mystery readers were desperate for female sleuths we could champion. We used terms like “independent,” “strong,” “kick ass,” “bad ass,” and maybe even “plucky” to describe female crime solvers – terms that we’d never use to describe men in the same situation. (I apologize to any reader to whom I ever uttered “strong female” when talking about a book you might like, but more about that another time). But back to the concept of read-alike. A Sue Grafton fan who loves Kinsey Millhone deserves a private detective along the lines of Tess Monaghan, the Baltimore sleuth created by Laura Lippman, or Fina Ludlow, the Boston private eye created by Ingrid Thoft.
The Alphabet Kept Going: I just mentioned that I’m a librarian. I’ve encountered scores of readers who said “I used to be a Sue Grafton fan” and then, for some reason, they lost interest. But they loved A Is forAlibi, B Is for Burglar, and a half-dozen other letters. The problem was in the middle of the alphabet, which may have been the books, but most probably had something to do with the reader, who either was fatigued with the series or they just weren’t the right books at the right time. There’s an easy fix for this at my library; we simply talk while walking over to the Mystery section (quite a walk in our large block-long fiction section), and I say, “Well, you’re in luck, because you can pick up again at R and you’ll be back with the Kinsey Millhone you love.” Sometimes I’d say P, or Q, or maybe even M or whatever happened to be on the shelf that day. The point was always to reassure the reader that it was the right time to reconnect with Kinsey. The reader sighs with relief, and happily goes home with Kinsey and a new commitment to reading this series through to the end of the alphabet.
Which Brings Us to Z: This morning my son told me that Grafton died. My first thought was selfish; I just moaned, “But what about Zzzzzzz????” I’m sorry that’s what I said and that’s what I thought. There’s so much to mourn with Sue Grafton’s passing. I have admired her for three decades, and I will continue to admire her. She changed the way women investigators are portrayed in crime novels, and she brought such a gift to readers like me who keep expecting other crime writers to catch up.
I thought Kinsey Millhone was everything I ever wanted to be. Turns out it was Sue Grafton.
I will miss them both.
See also: Facebook post from Grafton’s daughter, which ends with “… the alphabet now ends at Y.”