Famed mystery writer Sue Grafton loses battle against cancer

Mystery writer Sue Grafton, shown in 2009, died Thursday after a two-year battle with cancer. She was 77.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Just a handful of books into her wildly popular Alphabet series of mystery novels, writer Sue Grafton was already fielding questions about the inevitable: What comes after ‘Z’?

“To think about ‘Z’ means skipping right over all the intervening years,” the beloved writer wrote in a Q&A on her website. “I’ll be 199 years old by then so I’ll be lucky if I don’t spend the day drooling on myself.”

Devoted readers of Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone detective novels, first published in 1982 with “A is for Alibi,” will never know.


The Santa Barbara writer who created in Millhone one of the first modern hard-boiled female private eyes and topped best-seller lists for decades, inspiring loyal readers to name their daughters after the series’ heroine, died Thursday after a two-year battle with cancer, according to her daughter Jamie Clark. She was 77.

The latest installment in the series published earlier this year, “Y is for Yesterday,” will be the last, Clark wrote in a Facebook post.

“The alphabet now ends at Y,” she wrote.

Grafton’s husband of four decades, Steven Humphrey, said the author wasn’t in pain and was surrounded by family who talked to her for two days after she fell unconscious.

“Every day with her was a joy, she was the most amazing woman in the world,” said Humphrey, who lectures in philosophy at UC Santa Barbara and the University of Louisville.

Grafton created Millhone, a salty-mouthed, twice-divorced ex-cop with a penchant for Quarter Pounders with Cheese, at a time when mystery novels were almost exclusively written by men, featuring male protagonists.

“Unlike so many female characters in the mysteries that preceded her appearance, she is not a loyal helpmate or willing employee or second banana. Now, how refreshing is that?” her longtime editor, Marian Wood, said of Millhone in a post on the Penguin Random House website.


Grafton’s novels “became so successful and so beloved, that it totally changed the genre,” said Otto Penzler, owner of New York’s Mysterious Bookshop and publisher and editor of mystery novels. “She did so much for women mystery writers.”

Grafton said she came up with the plot for “A is for Alibi,” involving a poisoning by oleander, while fuming with murderous rage during a bitter, drawn-out custody battle with her second husband.

“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,” she told The Times in 1990. “I write to understand who I am.”

The writer liked to refer to Millhone, who investigates murders and disappearances in coastal Santa Teresa — a fictionalized version of Santa Barbara — as the thinner, younger, braver version of herself, living a life she may have led had she not married and had children at a young age.

Born April 24, 1940, in Louisville, Ky., to parents who were alcoholics, Grafton and her sister were left to spend much of their days on their own, reading. She read Mickey Spillane and Raymond Chandler at a young age, and was also influenced by her father, a municipal bond attorney who wrote mysteries in his spare time.

She married her first husband at 18 while attending Western Kentucky State Teachers College and had two children. She divorced within a few years and remarried, following her second husband’s job to Santa Barbara, where she had her third child, Jamie.

She published her first novel at 27, and dabbled in television and screenwriting, including TV-movie adaptations of Agatha Christie novels. She met Humphrey, 11 years her junior, while collaborating on a screenplay.

The Alphabet Series, the first of which marked her third published novel, quickly gained renown for Grafton and earned her a following rarefied in publishing circles, her books eventually being translated into 26 languages and published in 28 countries.

In interviews as early as 1991, Grafton said the series would conclude with “Z is for Zero,” and end in 1990, when her protagonist turns 40.

Since having a major surgery in May, Grafton sometimes sat in her office toying with ideas for the final book, but nothing seemed to spark, Humphrey said. She told a Times reporter in 2000, after 15 books, that thinking about the rest of the alphabet was apoplexy-inducing.

“I lower my focus and think,” she said at the time, “all I have to worry about is writing the next sentence well.”

In addition to her husband and Clark, she is survived by another daughter, Leslie Twine, and her son, Jay Schmidt.

Grafton’s remains will be cremated and the family will hold a private memorial Sunday. Memorials also will be held in Louisville and New York City.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


7:10 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with additional quotes and background.

3:30 p.m.: This article was updated with new staff obituary.

This article was originally published at 11:56 a.m.