Sue Grafton's homicidal urges surfaced in the middle of a bitter, six-year custody battle with an ex-husband. "I was so furious at him that I lay awake at night fantasizing how I could finish him off," she recalls.
"Then I had the brilliant idea of using oleander as a poison," she continues, settling into a comfortable chair in her sunny Santa Barbara living room. "Why oleander? Because, one, you see it all over California, and, two, I remembered what someone had told me when she saw oleanders in the yard. She said that oleander was so poisonous that one ounce of its powdered leaves mixed with a ton of hay was enough to kill 500 head of cattle. So I concocted the perfect murder plot. I imagined making copies of my children's keys to their father's house--we had joint custody at the time--so that I could sneak in and put powdered oleander in his allergy capsules. The next hay fever attack--no more ex-husband."
But in the clear light of morning, Grafton came to her senses. "Of course, I knew I'd never get away with it," she says with a laugh. "And since I didn't want to spend the rest of my life in a shapeless prison dress, I decided to turn my homicidal fantasy into a mystery novel."
Instead of a life prison sentence, she wound up with her first crime novel, " 'A' Is for Alibi." Published in 1982, it not only begins with a man done in by oleander and an ex-wife convicted of murder, but it also introduces the unique voice of her protagonist, street-smart and sassy private investigator Kinsey Millhone, who lives and works in the California coastal town of Santa Teresa, a fictionalized Santa Barbara. Now, seven letters and seven novels later (" 'G' Is for Gumshoe" will be published this spring), Kinsey is well-established as a refreshing addition to the hard-boiled detective tradition.
What makes Kinsey different and appealing is that she is a woman in a world that has long been a tough guy's domain. In fact, Grafton is one of several writers who have introduced women detectives to the genre in the last 15 years. Other authors such as Mickey Friedman, Lia Matera, Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky, Nancy Pickard, Gillian Roberts and Julie Smith are also challenging what has been considered a male role and a masculine literary form. It's a new style for women in the world of mystery fiction, and yet another instance of the way feminism has changed so many aspects of life and culture. No longer Miss Marples in the drawing room, their sleuths are out on Mean Street, taking hard knocks, wielding guns and, in general, using whatever mental and physical strengths are required to bring criminals to justice.
"Yeah, ain't that a kick?" says Grafton. "I love the fact that Kinsey can play hardball with the big boys. That's part of the fun of writing these books."
FOR THOSE WHO have come to know Kinsey through Grafton's award-winning mysteries (" 'B' Is for Burglar" and " 'C' Is for Corpse" each won the Anthony Award for best hard-cover mystery at Bouchercon, an annual convention of mystery writers, readers and publishers), it's not surprising to find that the author, like her fictional detective, is a brown-eyed brunette who favors jeans, T-shirts and running shoes. Nor is the Volkswagen bug in front of Grafton's garage unexpected--after all, her heroine drives one, too.
There are, of course, differences between her and Kinsey. Grafton, born and raised in Louisville, Ky., is 49 and married to her third husband, screenwriter Steve Humphrey. She is the mother of three children and the grandmother of a 3-year-old, as well as a lover of cats and her hillside garden. By contrast, Kinsey is a native Californian, and, twice-divorced at 32, she often makes a point of living without a man. She has no parents, no close family ties and no children. She keeps neither plants (she always kills them off) nor pets in the one-room, renovated garage she calls home. She was raised by an unmarried aunt who taught her how to fire a gun but no "girlish" skills. And although she rarely eats anything but pimento cheese sandwiches at odd hours, she runs to keep in shape since her work sometimes involves physical danger. With her sharp eye and fast mouth, she can sometimes rub people the wrong way.
"But Kinsey is beginning to mellow a bit," Grafton says, as she returns from the kitchen with cold drinks and cookies. "That's part of my getting more comfortable with the form. In the first draft of my first novel, I had Kinsey sounding too much like Mae West--wisecracks out of her mouth. Then I stopped trying to spoof the genre and finally got her voice right. I don't have to insist so much on her toughness because I know readers believe in her and enjoy being in her company."
Much of what distinguishes Kinsey's voice are her comments about the world today. About children, she says: "I tend to place kids in a class with dogs, preferring the quiet, the smart and the well-trained." When it comes to the white-collar criminal, she offers: "The ludicrous fact of the matter is that in this day and age, (he) can become a celebrity, a hero, can go on talk shows and write best-selling books." Whatever the subject, Kinsey rarely censors herself. "I've never been good at taking sh--, especially from men," she announces, and when a man allows that her job "doesn't seem like a fit occupation for a nice girl like you," she replies, "I'm not that nice."
Her one-liners and nitty-gritty remarks also have the cumulative effect of painting Kinsey as a woman of strong opinion and independent spirit. Yet Grafton says that she did not choose to create a female detective simply to make a feminist statement. "It was more an act of desperation," she says. "I wanted to write a mystery in the Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Ross MacDonald tradition because I'd always liked that down-and-dirty, dark and cynical world. But I didn't know beans about either how to construct a mystery plot or what a private eye actually does. So it would have been absurd to take on the extra burden of trying to write from a male point of view. With a female character, I could write from my gut and rely on my own experiences and perceptions."
When Grafton's dreams of revenge against her second ex-husband prompted her to write her first mystery, she had previously written two "mainstream" novels, whose sales were minimal, and was earning her living as a screenwriter in Hollywood. In retrospect, turning to detective fiction seems to have been a natural change for her because her late father, C. W. Grafton, a Louisville lawyer, was also the author of mysteries, including the classic, intricately plotted courtroom drama "Beyond a Reasonable Doubt."
"My father taught me a lot about writing," Grafton says, "even though he himself eventually abandoned it for his law practice. Still, he often talked about the process of writing, about keeping language simple, about the importance of transitions and paying attention to small details in a scene."
As Grafton reminisces about her late father, she is reminded that the underlying theme of her last book, " 'F' Is for Fugitive," involved fathers and daughters as well as a wistful recollection of childhood sorrows. "With my first book," she says, "I let it be known that Kinsey had lost her parents in an automobile wreck when she was 5 years old. It was like, 'Let's nuke those folks,' so I could establish right off that she's independent and self-created. And I'm sure that it had to do with my own ambivalence, since in many ways my family was textbook dysfunctional because of my parents' alcoholism. But then when the final scene of ' "F" ' popped into my mind I realized I was, in fact, still working out my feelings about my father."
But there were also advantages to her childhood in Kentucky, Grafton insists. "Because of my parents' problems, we had very little supervision as children," she says. "My sister, who's now a librarian, and I read all the time, with no censorship. I read Mickey Spillane instead of the usual Nancy Drew, which may account for my--and Kinsey's--sometimes trashy mouth. We lived so much in our own imaginations that inventing stories was something that came naturally to me. The loose format of my family was good in many ways, although I've had a lot of work to do going through some of the damage done. But what is writing about if not recording life's little lessons?"
Grafton talks openly about the lessons she's learned along the way. Married at 18 while attending Western Kentucky State Teachers College, she had two children, Leslie and Jay, who are now 29 and 28, respectively. She often reflects on the choices she and other women of her generation have made. "Coming from my weird family, I had a scheme to go out and make a perfect little family of my own as soon as I could," she says wryly. "I chose a man--he shall remain nameless--who I thought would be wonderfully ordinary. What I realized later was that, first, you don't spend 18 years in weirdness and then snap into ordinariness; and second, that ordinary is a bore."
After her divorce, she married her second husband in 1962, and because of his job, they moved to Santa Barbara, where her second daughter, Jamie, now 23, was born. By 1971, she was divorced again. "Finally, the fog had begun to clear," she says. "I was bored by being a mother of three small children, and even when I published my first novel at 27, I went into a kind of depression. Part of it was, I just wasn't conscious; I didn't know what my motives in general were, much less my reasons for writing."
Grafton says that what helped her discover a different sense of herself was the business she and her best friend started in the late '60s in Santa Barbara. "Don't laugh," she says, "but it was called Homemakers Unlimited, and we ran consciousness-raising sessions about attitudes toward housework. Our premise was that once women stopped obsessing about vacuuming and mopping, they would see that an hour's work instead of a day's produced a reasonably clean house. But once they reached that point, they also realized that there should be more to their lives. Although we closed the business just a few years later, it remained a turning point for me. It was the first time I'd made money as a free agent and from an idea of my own."
In the '70s, Grafton broke into screenwriting by doing the screenplay of her second novel, "The Lolly-Madonna War"; soon her witty one-liners and story smarts brought her script assignments for the sitcom "Rhoda" and several TV movies, including "Sex and the Single Parent" and "Mark, I Love You."
Through one collaboration, she met and fell in love with Steve Humphrey, who holds a doctorate in the philosophy of science and whose screenwriting credits include the TV series "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" and the TV movies "Love on the Run" and "Tonight's the Night," both written with Grafton. A handsome, down-to-earth, witty man, he is 11 years her junior.
Married in 1978, they are as compatible in their easy banter and relaxed affection as the computers in the large study they share. They still collaborate on screenplays during their well-organized day. Grafton's typical routine includes an early 3-mile run, the morning devoted to writing her mystery novels, the afternoon spent either revising her current mystery or working with Humphrey on TV movie scripts. If she isn't writing or revising, she and her husband will often spend the evening cooking for friends.
With this schedule, she intends to write her way through the entire alphabet by meeting a self-imposed annual deadline. Every Aug. 15, she sends a new Kinsey Millhone mystery to Marian Wood, the editor at Henry Holt and Co. who bought her first mystery and who has been an ardent fan ever since. "I dedicated my last book to her because she's always been so supportive," Grafton says. "After writing in Hollywood, where writers are well-paid but treated like trash, it was a real pleasure not to have editorial interference or idiotic suggestions. Now I get paid less, but I don't have to spend it on therapy."
From her office in New York, Wood recalls reading the first manuscript. "Even in those early pages, the voice was so clear and so strong that it touched a chord in me," she says. "I loved the 'odd-person-out,' fresh quality of her detective. I felt that readers would also respond to the character as totally original and wonderfully shaped; she has a real sense of style and humor and penetrating insights about American society. They're the kind you used to get from Chandler, Hammett and MacDonald. With each new book, Kinsey becomes richer and deeper, and readers, whatever their sex or age or background, have taken to her."
With 100,000-copy first printings for both " 'F' " and " 'G' " (mysteries usually have 10,000-copy first printings), Grafton has sold more than 100,000 copies in hardback and 750,000 in paperback. And signed to multiple-book contracts, Grafton now receives six-figure advances, a breakthrough figure for mystery writers. "I don't want to sound like a cliche," Wood says, "but Sue's is the kind of success story that delights those of us who work in publishing."
"Isn't it wonderful to make a living by writing what I like to write and spending time with a character I so enjoy?" Grafton explains. "I'm at a very good point in my life, and that has a lot to do with creating Kinsey. Of course, she's thinner and younger and braver than I. Still, I like to think she's the person I would have been if I had not married young and had children. Through her, I can explore all sorts of feelings that I'm sure other women share. Questions about independence, ambivalence about parents, attitudes toward men, issues of morality, all those juicy ideas that seem to seep in from the right side of my brain while I'm figuring out the structure of the mystery plot."
WHEN Grafton sets out to plot her mysteries, she has certain givens. First is the setting of Santa Teresa, her version of Santa Barbara, so that she, as she explains, "can play goddess and change buildings, streets, geography and even the weather to suit my needs and whims. In fact, though, I moved my last novel to a small beach town up the coast because I'd gotten bored with writing about red-tiled roofs." Second is her usual cast of supporting characters: Kinsey's 82-year-old landlord, Henry Pitts, a sort of father substitute; Rosie, the Hungarian owner of the seedy bar / restaurant that Kinsey frequents, who takes a motherly interest in the investigator, and two cops who sometimes help Kinsey in her investigations (with one of them, the sometimes-married Jonah Robb, Kinsey has an affair). Obviously, Kinsey's not immune to men--she even has a brief fling with a suspect--but she generally, as Grafton puts it, "tends to keep both her guard and her underpants up."
Grafton's novels have been written according to a fairly traditional formula--a murder early in the book, an investigation based on Kinsey's research and interviews with a number of people (which sometimes lead to physical threats) and finally Kinsey's solution to the case. As with most mysteries, the reader's satisfaction lies in the intellectual process of putting the pieces together and coming up with the right answer. But to paraphrase Dorothy Sayers, the queen of British mysteries, the mystery form also implies a moral view of the universe, an implicit desire by both writer and reader to restore order in an otherwise chaotic world, and Grafton agrees without reservation.
"I consider myself a moralist, absolutely," she says. "That's one of the joys of the mystery novel. Embedded in it is my rock-solid conviction of how I think the world should be, especially given the fact that in our society there's not that much justice. In the real world, it's difficult to bring people to trial and successfully prosecute a crime. But in a mystery novel, damn it, we nail 'em!"
She laughs at her own vehemence, then volunteers that writing mysteries also goes beyond a sense of justice. "With every book, I'm exploring my dark side," she explains. "All of us have experienced rage and a sense of powerlessness--exactly what I was feeling when I fantasized murder. What comes up in all of us when we're in such unjust situations is the same energy that drives killers. I keep looking at murder and trying to unravel what human beings are all about. So in some ways, I am writing psychological novels of discovery that happen to fall into the framework of the traditional mystery novel. I write to understand who I am."
But once again, she returns to Kinsey Millhone. Without her, Grafton concedes, her mysteries wouldn't have this element of personal discovery. Indeed, Grafton says, she not only explores her own feelings through Kinsey's character, but she also makes a point of learning the skills and gaining the professional knowledge that her character is supposed to have. Grafton has taken courses in target shooting and self-defense. She's visited morgues to observe dead bodies and learn forensic procedures. And most recently, with the usual cooperation of the local police, she checked herself into jail to experience being booked and locked up. She also has a large library of books on pathology, lock-picking and bodyguarding--subjects that may be crucial to a turn of plot.
But as for her private eye's acerbic observations, Grafton says that Kinsey's voice kicks in naturally when she sits down at the computer. She takes on any subject that catches her fancy, from jogging ("It hurts and I'm slow, but . . . I like the smell of my own sweat") to morality ("I'm a purist when it comes to justice, but I'll lie at the drop of a hat. Inconsistency has never troubled me."). She's especially snide when it comes to religious fanatics ("Being with devout Christians is like being with the very rich. One senses that there are rules at work . . . that one might inadvertently breach. I tried to hold bland and harmless thoughts, hoping I wouldn't blurt out any four-letter words") or self-satisfied businessmen ("At 42, he's an ass-kisser. . . He has a moon-shaped face and his collar looks too tight and everything else about him annoys me, too"). "When Kinsey gets waggish," Grafton explains, "that's the imp in me wanting to puncture pretensions or show someone up for what they really are. Many of her insights are mine. Much of her mean eye comes out of my perceptions and experiences, even though our biographies are different."
Grafton is still adding details to Kinsey's biography that will be revealed as she proceeds through the alphabet. "Of course, I know more about her than the reader knows, so I don't have to tell everything up front," she says. "For example, I know that some of her more cynical remarks about men come from her experience with her second husband, Daniel. I added a little of that story in ' "E" is for Evidence' because I didn't want her to sound too bitter or angry at men in a generalized way. I hope to let the reader in on some of the reasons for her cynicism. I don't want to idealize her or turn her into a political statement. I want her to be flawed and inconsistent and cranky and quirky--not a walking, talking feminist polemic, but a realistic portrait of a woman trying to do her job and live her life."
This goal is shared by other writers who have introduced female detectives to the hard-boiled tradition. Not surprisingly, Grafton mentions several whose works she reads and with whom she stays in touch. Grafton credits Marcia Muller, for example, as one of the pioneers in the field. Muller introduced Sharon McCone in the 1977 novel "Edwin of the Iron Shoes" and followed her exploits through several more books, five of which will be published as a collection this spring.
"I read Sue and enjoy Kinsey," says Muller, who lives in Sonoma, Calif. "Although we're very different, I think we're aiming at the same thing. When I first started writing my books, I was conscious that strong female voices in detective fiction weren't that common, except for those in, say, P. D. James' or Carolyn Heilbrun's / Amanda Cross' mysteries. I wanted to create a female detective who revealed the reality of women's lives, especially now that women are moving into jobs, like that of the private investigator, traditionally done only by men."
The few negative reviews of Grafton's work have expressed reservations about Kinsey's voice, arguing that at times it seems too insistently tough and cynical. The criticism is not uncommon when writers are standing gender conventions on their head, but Grafton and her colleagues concede that self-consciousness was a problem in the beginning.
"Over the years, we've both discovered that we can let our characters lose some of their hard edges," says Sara Paretsky, who lives in Chicago. "Burn Marks," the latest in her V. (as in Victoria) I. Warshawski detective series, has just been published, and she acknowledges the coincidental similarities between her savvy private investigator and Grafton's. "In the beginning, there were just a few of us, but as time went by, more women in fiction and the real world were working in jobs usually held by men. V. I. and Kinsey and Sharon no longer had to keep proving themselves. By creating strong female characters, all of us feel we can explore the questions that affect most people, but especially women who are trying to juggle demands our culture makes on them."
Back in her living room, Grafton pauses to reflect, then says: "I do agree with Sara about what we're trying to achieve. I would hope that Kinsey conveys my feeling that strong women are always very different from one another in some ways, just as they're similar in other ways. And even when we feminists believe something intellectually, our behavior can't always be programmatic or consistent. I mean, that's why we see therapists, right?"
Grafton laughs, her appreciation of human complexity asserting itself in a Kinsey-esque aside as she rises from her chair, eager to resume writing. Although " 'G' " will appear in bookstores May 5 (to coincide with her detective's 33rd birthday), Grafton is already hard at work on " 'H'," although she doesn't yet know what H will stand for. But one thing is certain--the next book will also be shaped by cheerful cynicism, an attitude Grafton summarizes by reciting one of her favorite Kinsey wisecracks: So much of humankind seems tacky that I don't know what the rest of us are supposed to do in response.
"I'm with Kinsey 100% on that one," Grafton says, a mischievous glint in her eyes. "And what do I do in response? I write mysteries to plumb the depths of human tackiness."