“The alphabet now ends at Y,” stated Sue Grafton’s daughter, Jamie Clark, on the author’s Facebook page regarding her mother’s passing.
Sue Grafton died December 28 in Santa Barbara, California, following a two-year battle with cancer. She was 77.
In announcing Grafton’s passing, her daughter posted this on the Sue Grafton Facebook page:
“Hello Dear Readers. This is Sue’s daughter, Jamie. I am sorry to tell you all that Sue passed away last night after a two-year battle with cancer. She was surrounded by family, including her devoted and adoring husband, Steve. Although we knew this was coming, it was unexpected and fast. She had been fine up until just a few days ago, and then things moved quickly. Sue always said that she would continue writing as long as she had the juice. Many of you also know that she was adamant that her books would never be turned into movies or TV shows, and in that same vein, she would never allow a ghost writer to write in her name. Because of all of those things, and out of the deep abiding love and respect for our dear sweet Sue, as far as we in the family are concerned, the alphabet now ends at Y.”
(Her final book, Y Is for Yesterday, was published in August.)
Mystery Scene offers our sincere condolences to her family, friends, and readers.
Grafton’s best-selling “alphabet series,” featuring Southern California private detective Kinsey Millhone, made her one of the most popular mystery novelists of her time.
And none of us wanted 2017 to end this way.
For many of us who began reading about Kinsey in her early days, Grafton’s character was more than just a private detective, and her novels were more than just another mystery series to be enjoyed.
The Kinsey Millhone novels were true touchstones, cultural icons, and, in some way, life changing.
It began with these opening lines:
“My name is Kinsey Millhone. I am a private investigator, licensed by the state of California. I am thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids. The day before yesterday I killed someone and the fact weighs heavily on my mind.”
—the opening lines of A Is for Alibi
And ended with:
“Respectfully submitted, Kinsey Millhone”
I clearly remember when a friend of mine mentioned that he had heard about this new author who had these kind of cute titles—each began with a letter of the alphabet—and they were about this female private detective. I had been a lifetime mystery reader since I was about nine years old. I started with Rex Stout, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler. To this day I have never read a Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys (though I liked the TV series.)
But at the time I had stopped reading mysteries because no new author was speaking to me. Until Sue Grafton (and, to be fair, Sara Paretsky and Marcia Muller).
Here was Kinsey, who could easily have been a friend I hung out with. Like me, she was independent, unmarried, no children, supporting herself. I may have had more clothes than she, and more than just that one black dress. But I had been known to, at times, trim my bangs with manicure scissors. The big differences were that I had a dog, owned my own home, had a few plants, and had a close relationship with my parents.
And I did not eat peanut butter and pickle sandwiches, a staple in Kinsey’s diet.
But beginning in 1982, with A Is for Alibi, and through the 25th letter of the alphabet with her final adventure, Y Is for Yesterday, published in August 2017, Kinsey was there for me.
Like all of us, Kinsey changed through the years, though Grafton almost imperceptibly allowed her to grow. Kinsey was still the single, cranky-minded private detective as she was in the beginning. She had a close relationship to her landlord, Henry, who became her surrogate father. But she also began to open herself up, just a bit. She got involved with the relatives she didn’t know she had. Y Is for Yesterday actually found Kinsey embracing, almost, a cat and a dog. That was a huge start for her.
Not every plot worked. But around M Is for Malice, the novels underwent a sea change and became a bit deeper and even richer.
But I always maintained that most of us didn’t read the Grafton novels for their deep plots or look at social issues. We just wanted to see what Kinsey was up to. What scrapes she got herself into. Would she ever date again? Would she ever splurge on clothing or a good handbag?
I was as shocked as anyone when in V Is for Vengeance Kinsey is looking through the lingerie department at Nordstrom’s. But she was about to turn 38 years old and we all know that Kinsey can’t resist the lure of the good sale.
So there she was, in Nordstrom’s lingerie department, “sorting through ladies’ underpants on sale—three pair for ten bucks, a bonanza for someone of my cheap bent.” She even thought about buying silk pajamas, marked down to $49.95 from $199.95. “Most nights I sleep in a ratty oversize T-shirt. At $49.95, I could afford to indulge. Then again, I’m single and sleep alone, so what would be the point?”
Used to “low-end chain stores, where aisles are jammed with racks of identical garments, suggesting cheap manufacture in a country unfettered by child labor laws,” Kinsey is seduced by Nordstrom’s, “a palace by comparison, the interior cool and elegant.”
But as usual, Kinsey is always working, so while she stocks up on underwear, she also witnesses two shoplifters who jump-start the plot of V Is for Vengeance.
INFLUENCED OTHER AUTHORS
I think Grafton’s novels didn’t just speak to readers but also influenced other authors. Her success, as well as that of Paretsky and Muller, opened the door for other strong female private detectives, cops, and amateur sleuths. These authors also showed publishers that mystery readers would follow characters anywhere and opened the way for detectives of color as well as gay and lesbian detectives.
Grafton received many awards during her career. She and James Lee Burke shared the Grand Master award in 2009 from the Mystery Writers of America. She also was nominated for the Edgar Award in 1991 for best short story, “A Poison That Leaves No Trace” in the Berkley anthology Sisters in Crime 2, and in 1986 was nominated for best TV feature or miniseries for “Love on the Run” with her husband, Steve Humphrey, for NBC-TV.
She also was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Private Eye Writers of America, the Ross Macdonald Literary Award, the Cartier Diamond Dagger Award from Britain’s Crime Writers’ Association, the Lifetime Achievement Award from Malice Domestic, the Anthony Award, and three Shamus Awards.
WHAT ABOUT ZERO?
The Kinsey novels were generally released two years apart. In an interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal, Humphrey said his late wife had not yet started writing her last book in the series.
“She was trying to come up with an idea, but she never got one she liked,” he said. “With chemo, she didn't have much energy or interest in that anyway. There will just be a 25-letter alphabet, I'm sorry to say,” he told the newspaper.
But apparently she did know the title. “She always said that last book would be Z Is for Zero,” Humphrey told The New York Times. “She’d been saying that for 30 years.”
The Kinsey novels began in the 1980s and now, with Y Is for Yesterday, end just a few months into the 1990s. “Z” would have been set firmly in 1990 and Kinsey’s 40th birthday would be nearing.
Now we can only speculate on what changes might have occurred in Kinsey’s life. Would she have remarried—third time the charm? Would she have become the guardian of a relative, as she was when her Aunt Ginny took her in when she was four years old? That would bring her life full circle.
I hope the family keeps its promise and allows the alphabet to end at Y, forcing us all to use our imagination.
Rest in peace, Sue Grafton. You and Kinsey will be missed.
A celebration of one of mysterydom’s favorite writers.
Bill Crider is a man with three cats, many books, even more friends, and few regrets.
The widely published 76-year-old author informed his blog followers recently that he had been given a few months—or even weeks—to live. Prostate cancer had spread. Facing a finite number of days, at home in hospice care and surrounded by his books and his family—daughter Angela and son Allen—Crider was too ill to get out for his weekly Sunday School class. Characteristically, the prolific writer was still thinking about books, fellow writers, and readers.
“My only regret is that I have several unreviewed books, including Lawrence Block's fine new anthology, Alive in Shape and Color, and Max Allan Collins' latest collaboration with Mickey Spillane, The Last Stand, which is a collection of two novellas, ‘A Bullet for Satisfaction,’ an early Spillane manuscript with an interesting history, and ‘The Last Stand,’ the last thing that Spillane completed,” he wrote in his blog.
For many years, Crider also reviewed short stories for Mystery Scene magazine. “Bill is so knowledgeable about the genre and so witty in his appraisals. We were very lucky to have him as a contributor. He has many friends at the magazine,” said Mystery Scene editor Kate Stine.
Characteristically generous with his reviews and fellowship, Crider has high praise for fellow members of organizations like the Mystery Writers of America, and the smaller Western Fictioneers.
“There are so many novelists who inspired me the list would take all day ... there are literary novels I have loved, mystery, adventure, science fiction—there’s an endless list,” he said in a December 6 interview. “I’m dazzled by all of them.”
Young Billy Crider had no inkling that he would grow up to be an author. His Mexia, Texas boyhood dream (and that of many of his peers) was to to find gold on the diamond as a major league ball player.
“I turned out to be half blind, totally uncoordinated, skinny and slow—none of which are highly sought qualities in a baseball player,” Crider recalled with a smile. Instead he got an undergraduate degree at the University of Texas at Austin, and then a master’s at the University of North Texas, and a PhD from UT-Austin. All the degrees were in English. (“There’s a pattern there,” he admits with his trademark dry wit.)
Crider taught first at Corsicana High School while his wife Judy finished her college, then at Howard Payne University and finally, 19 years at Alvin Community College, where he was chair of the English department and chair of arts and humanities.
Doing poetry in a writers’ group at Howard Payne, the idea of fiction came up.
“A man at the group didn’t write, but he told me that he thought that he thought he and I could write a novel. He wanted us to write a Nick Carter spy novel,” he recalled. That collaboration, The Coyote Connection, was the first novel he sold. He started his first Sheriff Dan Rhodes novel, with an eye to making it a short story. “It got to be over 50 pages, and I thought, ‘That’s not short!’” Crider recalled.
Editor Ruth Cavin from Walker Books came to an MWA meeting in Houston, asked to see it, and published Too Late to Die in 1986. It won an Anthony Award for Best First Novel.
A string of successes—many of them collaborations—followed. Between those written in his name, a pen name, and house names he really has no firm numbers. More than 100, probably. That kind of literary longevity simply comes from doing what works and long repetition, Crider said. His advice for would-be writers?
“The only advice I know is the same old advice: read, read, read, write, write, write,” he said.
Still mourning his wife Judy after her death from cancer in 2014, Crider found himself writing another chapter, in the form of an unexpected find in a drainage ditch across from his house. Returning to his Alvin, Texas home after a jog in 2016, he saw a tiny kitten wrapped in a dirty old towel. He picked the gray-striped tabby up and brought her in. “What else could I do? Besides, everybody needs a cat. We were quite happy together,” he said.
And then, a plot twist.
“The next day I looked out the window and there were two more cats,” he remembered.
“I hoped they were squirrels, is what I hoped.” Chagrined but not daunted, Crider was worried about what would happen if he didn’t take them all in. So from three superfluous kittens, a new family sprang up with Bill Crider as the pater familias. He dubbed them Keanu, Gilligan, and Li’l Ginger Tom.
Frustrating as only kittens can be, the tiny trio were hard to wrangle. “They were all over everything and into everything, running around and tearing things up,” Crider remembered. Collectively, they were the Very Bad Kitties, or VBKs, for short.
The biggest surprise, however, was how the furry trio dominated Crider’s Facebook page. They soon eclipsed his other posts from Today’s Vintage Ad, PaperBack, and Bill Crider's Pop Culture Magazine.
“I put up pictures of things and I’d get six or seven likes, or maybe 20 likes. I put up the first picture of the VBKs, and had something like 1,500 likes the first day,” he recalled.
People adored the three photogenic, naughty-but-nice orphans. Draped over his knees. Synchronized lounging on cat platforms. Poised in boxes. Napping on window sills. (Napping everywhere.) Posters would make up captions, and guess at what the kitties were “saying” as Crider snapped their candid shots.
“You can certainly follow the growth of those cats—I should have given them their own Facebook page,” he said. Around the one year mark, the mature cats grew up and settled down. Although they didn’t fit conveniently in his lap any more, the photo ops continued. Crider said he’s had a few folks say the VBKs inspired them to adopt a cat. The more of that the better, he said.
“I’m a cat fan, and if a cat’s an orphan and he needs adopted, I say go ahead. I grew up with dogs, and I would recommend that, too. It doesn’t matter if it’s a cat or dog or a wombat—pets are just wonderful companions,” he said.
“It’s definitely changed my life.”
With her father’s illness, daughter Angela Crider Neary has undertaken securing a future for the VBKs. She credits the three felines for helping her dad find new meaning after her mother died in 2014. “I think he probably never would have gotten over that. They’ve helped him and kept him company. I think it was a good thing. A lot of people say my mom sent them to him. She would have loved them, herself,” she said. “He’s very lucky to have had them, and they’re very lucky to have had him.”
A WRITING LEGACY
The apple hasn’t fallen far from the literary tree. Neary said her father’s pride in her writing was never more visible than when the attorney and author sold a story to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, which numbers her father among its distinguished contributors.
There’s been an outpouring of appreciation for Crider since word of his grim prognosis spread, Neary said. “Everybody hates to lose him, especially me. It’s nice to see how much respect and admiration there is for him out there,” she said.
Among Crider’s many long-time industry friends, novelist and screenwriter Lee Goldberg said Crider is one of the most knowledgeable writers he knows.
“He informs his opinions with so much knowledge and actual experience, he’s really unique. The man has written western novels, crime novels, horror—that’s not easy. For all I know, he’s written science fiction and romance.”
The two worked together on several projects. He loved Crider’s Outrage at Blanco and Texas Vigilante, and a Lee Goldberg screen adaptation came close to full funding before an investor fell out. He’d still like to see it made into a film. When Goldberg launched Brash Books, Crider was one of his first calls for recommendations
“Eighty percent of our titles are re-releases of great novels fallen out of print. Who better to advise me than Bill Crider?
“He has schooled me in mystery fiction and Western fiction for quite some time.”
On the way to Bouchercon in New Orleans in 2016, Goldberg decided to drop in and see his old friend at his home near Houston. “It’s more of a balance between a home and a book depository,” Goldberg said. “You feel his love of books right away.”
And then there’s Crider’s universal likability.
“I would call it a ‘mission impossible’ to find anyone to say a harsh word about Bill Crider. Even somebody who disagrees with him will begin by saying they love and admire him,” Goldberg said.
The courage with which Bill Crider supported his wife through her battle with cancer—and with which he faces his own approaching death—exemplifies grace under the severest of all pressures, his long-time friend said.
“He is giving us a great lesson,” Goldberg said.
As he closes life’s book, Bill Crider’s regrets are very few, mostly literary in nature.
“It saddens me to think of all the great books by many writers that I'll never read. But I've had a great life, and my readers have been a big part of it. Much love to you all,” he blogged.
Asked for parting wisdom, he shared life advice he seems to have lived by.
“Take it as it comes,” he said. “Take it as it comes.”
Jacqueline Carmichael is an American-Canadian writer based on Vancouver Island in British Columbia.