In 1982, with "A Is for Alibi," Sue Grafton introduced the world to Kinsey Millhone, prototype of the now ubiquitous fictional smart-and-sassy female private detective.
Kinsey, at the start, is 32, twice-divorced and only occasionally involved in new romantic entanglements. She's in good physical shape, fast-witted and cynical. In short order, Ms. Grafton became a major international success and pop culture icon. In Stieg Larsson's enormously successful "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," a major character is shown reading a novel by Sue Grafton.
Ms. Grafton's successive alphabet novels reached "V Is for Vengeance" in 2011. With only four more to go, she is holding off on the "W" installment by publishing the present collection, which includes a collection of early short detective mysteries featuring P.I. Millhone, plus a group of stories in which Kit Blue, a fictionalized version of the author herself, reflects on her unhappy childhood and alcoholic mother, who committed suicide after being diagnosed with advanced esophageal cancer. "If Kinsey Millhone is my alter ego," Ms. Grafton tells us in an introductory essay, "Kit Blue is simply a younger version of me."
"KINSEY AND ME"
By Sue Grafton.
The brief essays are as fascinating as the fiction. In a preface the author encapsulates the craft of writing the mystery short story -- technically quite different from a full-length mystery novel. "In the space of 20 or so manuscript pages," she writes, "the writer must establish the credentials and personality of the detective ... the time period and the physical setting ... lay out the nature of the crime and introduce two or three viable suspects ... create suspense and generate a modicum of action while demonstrating how the detective organizes the subsequent inquiry and arrives at a working theory."
In a further introduction, Ms. Grafton describes Kinsey as "the person I might have been had I not married young and had children." Introducing the book's second half, she contrasts the old-fashioned hard-boiled male private eye, likable for projecting our own repressed impulses, with the modern female sleuth, who has "moved from the role of 'femme fatale' to that of prime mover ... a multifaceted arbiter of our desires in conflict."
The stories count most, of course, and the Kinsey collection shows Ms. Grafton at her best, from the deft bedroom tricks that mark "Between the Sheets" to the Kinsey-delivered retribution that resolves "Full Circle." The autobiographical Kit Blue stories are harder to take, for the horrific descriptions of her mother's cancer treatments and the reflections of emotional abuse in the author's own childhood. They're dark and self-indulgent, but enlightening for Ms. Grafton's fans. This section clarifies what Grafton fans have suspected all along, that the line between Ms. Grafton and Kinsey Millhone is razor-thin.
The alphabet novels have been criticized for being formulaic and superficial (and at times they have been), but the closeness between fact and fiction has contributed to the vividness and sense of reality with which this iconic character never fails to emerge from the printed page.
Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor. First Published January 27, 2013 5:00 AM