In 1982, reviewing Sue Grafton’s first private detective novel, “A Is for Alibi,” the pseudonymous New York Times crime fiction critic Newgate Callendar wondered, “Will the series take hold? This first book is competent enough, but not particularly original.” Twenty-seven years on, Callendar’s dismissive attitude toward the book -- and its tough-minded thirtysomething heroine Kinsey Millhone -- demonstrates the dangers of prognostication and how instantaneous judgments don’t age well.
Grafton’s alphabet-titled series not only took hold, but the books are also available in 28 countries (and 26 languages) in abundant quantities, well into the millions of copies. In the last two years, Grafton has won lifetime achievement awards on both sides of the Atlantic. Without her and crime-writing colleagues Sara Paretsky and Marcia Muller, the female private detective subgenre would simply not exist. And with the end of the alphabet in sight, no author is more closely identified with reader expectations -- especially when “Z Is for Zero” shepherds Kinsey and her hometown of Santa Teresa to a fictional end.
Grafton has certainly reaped the rewards of this bigger picture: But what’s been lost in the collective race toward the finish line is that Grafton, interviewed on the first day of her book tour for “U Is for Undertow” (Putnam: 404 pp., $27.95), has produced a better book each time out, and “U” is her most structurally complex, psychologically potent book to date.
The 69-year-old woman I met at the Four Seasons Hotel, where she stays regularly when visiting the city, was comfortable in the skin of her black sweater, gray speckled skirt and black boots. But just underneath the extroverted mask she presents at bookstore appearances is the deeply contemplative writer still determined to stretch her chops and chart territory that removes any semblance of a comfort zone. Rather than rest on her laurels, Grafton does the exact opposite.
The main story line in “U” concerns the disappearance of a 4-year-old girl in the late 1960s -- a topic “fraught with emotion” for Grafton, who has a granddaughter the same age.
“I could hardly bear the subject matter,” she said. “Children are so precious, and it was very difficult to talk about the disappearance of a child, because I could identify all too well with the agony that parents and grandparents must go through.”
Grafton had actively resisted working on such a story line for a while -- it was one of six possible plots she considered and took notes on for her previous book, “T Is for Trespass” -- but found it worked this time once she decided to keep the crime itself off-camera. While her books by definition deal with homicide and violence, Grafton doesn’t want to “repel her readers” and rub the gory details in their faces.
Instead, Grafton is more concerned with what happens in the gray areas, when ordinary people cross the line.
“Many criminals are not evil people,” she says. “They are not pathologically twisted. Many ordinary folk somehow wander from the straight and narrow. And those kinds of deviations and crimes are interesting to me because they are closer to the norm. They are outside what I consider acceptable behavior, but not as cut and dried.”
Echoing her last two books, Grafton no longer relies on Kinsey as the sole narrator, but “U” goes a step further: There are several additional points of view from characters with deep connections to the kidnapped child, told in alternating time sequences between the late ‘60s and the “present day” of 1988. The added rigors kept Grafton off-balance in the two years it took to complete the novel.
“It was the most bizarre thing: I could ‘see’ the story, like it was a little light box, but I couldn’t figure out how to break down the elements and how to present them, what was the beginning, middle and end,” she said. “So I kept dumping it. But every time I would do that, it was like there was a figure tapping my shoulder, insisting I keep trying. I must have started the story wrong about three times. It was like throwing dinner plates at the wall in order to see what sticks.”
As frustrating as the process is for her (Grafton confessed there were days she “nearly burst into tears” when the writing wasn’t working), she takes comfort that she’s gone through similar routines every time -- and can prove it by looking back to the voluminous journals she’s kept for each of her books. (Notes dating back to “G Is for Gumshoe” are archived on her computer; Boston University, to which she donated her archives, houses the journals for the series’ earliest installments.)
Of course, the looming specter of “Z” -- which will coincide with Kinsey’s 40th birthday in 1990 -- can’t be completely ignored. With just five more letters in the alphabet, Grafton estimates she’ll be an octogenarian when she shuts the door on Kinsey -- and no, there won’t be more using the Cyrillic alphabet, or double letters, or anything of the sort. “I’ll never do linking titles again,” she said.
But who’s to say she needs to continue the sequence? She’s the author, the god of her writing, and surely, she could stop whenever she likes?
“Well, I don’t know,” Grafton said, a half-smile on her face. “When I started writing the series, who even knew this was going to work? Was that gall, was I being cheeky or not? For the first half of the alphabet, people bet I couldn’t [get to the end]. Now, they are rooting for me.”
Talking to Grafton reveals some of the yin and yang between author and readers. On the one hand, she stresses that she “has to put up a wall” and tune out most of what they might suggest for Kinsey: "[They want her] to have more than one dress, get better haircuts, diet improved. If I did all that she wouldn’t be Kinsey Millhone.”
But a letter from a reader named Pat did spur one of the most important story pieces in “U": a deeper investigation of Kinsey’s personal history (first delved into in “J Is for Judgment”) and the motivations of both her rich, distant grandmother and her aunt and onetime guardian, Virginia. Why did this letter hit home more than any of the other missives that Grafton gets? “It was a message I must have been ready to receive,” she said.
Grafton is also adamant that Hollywood won’t get its hands on Kinsey. She’s joked in the past that she’ll haunt her kids if they ever capitulate, but the long-running reticence has concrete roots in the 16 years she spent as a screenwriter (the latter portion with her third and current husband, Steven Humphrey). “Part of my issue with Hollywood is that if an actress is attached to the series to play Kinsey, she’s going to be in my head. I can’t afford that. Once they own her, once money changes hands, [Hollywood] can do whatever they want.”
She may have left the film and television world behind 20 years ago, but some lessons are hard to forget. “I know how those meetings sound and how the decisions are made,” Grafton said. “They court you up front and all they want to do is get your stuff. Anyone who falls for it is a fool. It’s like being picked up in a bar: If you really believe when the guy tells you you’re beautiful, you’re going to be in for a big surprise.”