Southern California's Intrepid Alphabet Sleuth

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fifteen down and 11 books to go. For Sue Grafton, it's a good thing there are only 26 letters in the alphabet.

Since "A Is for Alibi" was published in 1982, Grafton has been working her way to Z, chronicling the adventures of Kinsey Millhone, a tough, unpretentious private detective who pays her disability insurance even before her rent.

"When I sit there and think about the entire rest of the alphabet, I about have apoplexy," said Grafton, who later this month will turn 60, which will put her at about 75 by the time she's done with the series. "I lower my focus and think all I have to worry about is writing the next sentence well. Don't look at the big picture. Don't worry about the critics. Just get it down to which word goes in front of which. And if you can do that, then the rest will take care of itself."

One of the first modern hard-boiled female detectives, Millhone is a smart-mouthed, fast-thinking ex-cop based in Santa Teresa, a thinly veiled rendition of Santa Barbara. The setting is a natural for Grafton, who lives in Montecito and captures the aura with such clarity that you can almost smell the sea breeze.

Millhone is in her mid-30s (she ages one year every 2 1/2 books), twice divorced, no kids, no pets. She takes chances, makes mistakes and has even killed.

In the series' most recent installment, "O Is for Outlaw" (Henry Holt, 1999), Kinsey returns with her wry sense of humor and insatiable appetite for Quarter Pounders with cheese.

"I steered with one hand while I munched with the other, all the time moaning with pleasure. It's pitiful to have a life in which junk food is awarded the same high status as sex. Then again, I tend to get a lot more of the one than I do of the other."

In "Outlaw," Millhone stumbles onto some long-forgotten personal mementos, including an unopened letter, that persuade her that a former husband isn't the murderer she thought he was. As he lies in a hospital fighting for his own life, she searches for the real killer.

"Outlaw" is the first in the series to delve into Kinsey's first marriage, a subject that made Grafton a bit nervous despite having a solid following for the series with 42 million books sold worldwide.

"As I was writing, I thought, they're gonna kill me for this. Nobody is going to give a [damn] about Kinsey Millhone's private life and here I am hanging my butt out," Grafton said in her native Kentucky accent. "But by then, I was so far into it, I thought, 'Oh, well, you've got to have one bad book in the lot, so let them cremate me.' "

It turned out to be another bestseller, earning praise from critics and readers alike.

She's now halfway through "P" and confident she'll make the January 2001 deadline for her new publisher, Putnam. Grafton writes seven days a week, taking a break only when she's ill or out of town. Although she spends four to five hours a day at the computer, she's constantly thinking about her work, even, she says, when she sleeps.

This rigorous schedule keeps her connected to the work and helps ensure that a new book will be published every 1 1/2 years. She hasn't settled on a title for "P"--she has about 25 possibilities, such as "persecute," "prosecute," "poison," "prison" and "pistol"--but is leaning toward a certain choice that she won't mention. After that comes "Q Is for Quarry." But will she be stumped by the ungainly X? Don't bet on it--try "X Is for Xenophobe."

A Childhood of 'Benign Neglect'

As a rule, Grafton doesn't discuss a book in progress, not even with her husband of 21 years, Steve Humphrey, a philosophy of physics professor at UC Santa Barbara and the University of Louisville. When she's done, she asks Humphrey to read it before sending it to her longtime editor, Marian Wood, who went to Putnam last year.

Growing up, Grafton dreamed of being a teacher, but it seems she was destined to write. Both her parents were alcoholics and she describes her childhood as one of "benign neglect." But in some ways it was perfect, having the freedom to play in the neighborhood and invent incredible games. Because she had to grow up fast, she learned to be responsible, self-reliant and developed a keen eye with which to scan reality.

"That's what writing is about, looking at what's around you and finding a way to distill it into your fiction," she said. "It served me well."

Her childhood home in Louisville, Ky., had a rack of fiction paperbacks in which her mother, Vivian, had penciled in "dirty," "dull" or "good" after she had read them. Her parents allowed her and her elder sister, Ann, to read anything, so while her peers were into Nancy Drew, she was reading Raymond Chandler.

She was also inspired by her father, C.W. "Chip" Grafton, who worked as a municipal bond attorney by day and wrote mystery fiction by night. He taught her how to develop a clear story line, pay attention to minor characters and, perhaps most importantly, how to take rejection as a writer. While working as a hospital cashier and a doctor's office receptionist, Grafton wrote three unpublished books before "Keziah Dane" came out in 1967 when she was 27.

The idea for "A Is for Alibi" came while Grafton was lying awake at night, fantasizing about killing her second husband, with whom she was embroiled in a bitter child-custody dispute. Instead of acting on her perfect plan, she put it down on paper. Her ex-husband has since told her that, at the time, he was thinking about disposing of her in the desert.

"At least I got a career out of the deal," she says with a big grin.

In order to write with some authority, Grafton taught herself about private-eye and police procedures, forensics and toxicology. It took her five years to finish the first Kinsey Millhone book. She has since whittled down the process--it took only 13 months for "O Is for Outlaw."

She and Millhone have a lot in common. Both have an all-purpose long-sleeved black dress, which Millhone uses to blend in at cocktail parties, courthouse proceedings and funerals. They stay physically fit. Grafton walks a total of 27 miles a week and does weightlifting and yoga; Millhone does a three-mile jog in the early morning along the beach. Both had childhoods marked by crisis--Millhone's parents were killed in a car accident when she was 5. Both are squeamish about needles, have a strong attachment to their purses and are expert at telling white lies.

"It's a marvel God doesn't reach right down and rip my tongue out by the roots for the lies I tell," Millhone muses to herself in "B Is for Burglar."

"She's like my secret self," Grafton said. "She's the person I would have been, or might have been, had I not married young and had children. She is so real to me. Sometimes I feel like she's standing behind my shoulder going, 'Do it, do it!' And I go, 'I'm not going to say that!' I worry about being polite and she doesn't."

For Grafton, her toughest book to write so far was "H Is for Homicide," which deals with Los Angeles gang members who set up bogus car accidents. Being "so far out of my turf," she read newspaper stories about gangs and contacted state insurance fraud officials and the Insurance Crime Prevention Institute, which provided her with valuable insight, including videos of actual crimes being committed.

Her favorite Kinsey Millhone book is "J Is for Judgment," because it was a turning point for Grafton's writing psyche. Acting on complaints from readers about Millhone's foul language, Grafton had started censoring her writing, which she believes made it flat. She heard about a Los Angeles therapist who is a Jungian and, apprehensively, did three months of therapy by phone. He taught her about Ego, the aspects a person presents to the world, and Shadow, the things people repress because they're ashamed or embarrassed.

"When you write mysteries, you're always dealing with Shadow issues, the unconscious and the repressed pieces of your nature," Grafton said. "Shadow is the one that tells me when a book isn't working, that little voice that says, 'You cannot be serious about this.' "

So she stopped worrying about the world's expectations and instead let Kinsey just be herself.

Grafton, who divides her time between 4 1/2 acres in Montecito and a home in Louisville, seems grateful for her success. She donated her old Volkswagen Beetle (like the one that Millhone drives) for a raffle to benefit the Ensemble Theatre of Santa Barbara, gave $8,000 to train a local police dog and has a license plate that reads, "THNX KNS."

"Everything I own is due to this woman," she said.

Grafton also feels fortunate to have 4,000 people on her mailing list, all of whom receive a personalized note, annual Christmas card and a book-signing tour schedule. Name your baby Kinsey--as some 45 people have done--and she sends hand-painted "Kinsey" barrettes with a letter from Millhone explaining how to be a good little girl.

"It's my way of saying thank you," Grafton said. "There are a lot of writers out there, a lot of books."

A Hint of What's Ahead for Detective Millhone

Many of her fans ask about Millhone's future.

Henry Pitts, Millhone's lovable octogenarian landlord, will make it to the end, as likely will Rosie, the neighborhood Hungarian restaurateur, said Grafton. She doubts Millhone will ever learn to cook or have children, "but she could surprise me." It's also doubtful that Millhone will toy with the Internet, DNA or cell phones, since "A Is for Alibi" is set in 1982 and "Z Is for Zero" will take place in 1990, when Millhone celebrates her 40th birthday.

The one thing Grafton knows is that Millhone will never go Hollywood. She's made her three grown children promise they will never sell the screen rights. (She's still working on her two granddaughters, one of whom is named Kinsey.)

"Nothing about Hollywood appeals to me," said Grafton, who wrote for television in the '70s and '80s and penned the screenplay for her 1969 novel, "The Lolly-Madonna War." "What I learned working there is you never sell them anything you care about."

And she swears that if her writing quality diminishes, she'll quit before she gets to Z.

"I'll pack it in. I am not going to do it just for the sake of it. I'm not going to farm it out, cheat or recycle an old book," she says.

And suppose she makes it to "Z Is for Zero"? What then?

"I'm gonna party, sweetheart!"

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