Mystery writer Sue Grafton, who died last week after a battle with cancer, spun the type of stories that made readers feel as though they were listening in on a private conversation. [Los Angeles Times photo]

The sad reality of the 25-letter alphabet

“Personally I don’t endorse the notion of mortality. It’s fine for other folk, but I disapprove of the concept for me and my loved ones. Seems unfair that we’re not allowed to vote on the matter and not one of us is excused. Who made up that rule?”

— “V is for Vengeance”

Kinsey Millhone — the 1980s private eye with the blue jeans, turtlenecks and one all-purpose little black dress; the craving for peanut butter and pickle sandwiches; and the hair she trimmed herself with nail clippers — was nobody’s pushover.

Despite her protestations, she always knew the score. More often than not, through 25 novels and several short stories, Kinsey was the one keeping the score. She knew her time on Earth could end, would end, despite the number of times she escaped death’s clutches.

Even at that, though, the news that Kinsey Millhone’s adventures had come to a sudden end — with the passing from cancer at age 77 of acclaimed mystery writer Sue Grafton — came with a double-tap to the heart.

Sue and Kinsey (her legion of fans would not truck referring to either by her last name) were intertwined through what had come to be known as “The Alphabet Series.” From “A is for Alibi” to “Y is for Yesterday,” each coming new chapter would immediately disappear from bookshelves.

At a time when paperback mysteries dominate the genre, it is a badge of honor to collect The Alphabet Series in hardcover — particularly early editions of the first few novels, which came in a smaller size.

Trust me … I know of which I speak. Our own journey to collect all 25 first-editions took us from the Lord Jeffrey Bookshop in Amherst, Massachusetts, to a Barnes & Noble in Florida, to Munro’s Books in Victoria, B.C. — with stops at Bloomsbury in Ashland to Books & Bears on the Florence waterfront included.

Once, memorably, I badgered a Mail Tribune co-worker into stopping at a Borders in Traverse City, Michigan, while on a business trip … just on the hunch that it might have a till then hard-to-find hardbound copy of “D is for Deadbeat.”

It did.

When Sue died, the first reaction was a sudden “Oh, no!” followed by the knowledge that, as her family has decided, “the alphabet now ends with Y.” There will be no “Z is for Zero” — she hadn’t started writing it, and the family is determined not to have anyone else ghostwrite such a book.

That’s in following with the author’s own determination to keep the series between her and her readers — which also meant no chance of the former TV writer selling the rights to Kinsey’s sleuthing for movies or television; doing her readers, she said, “a personal favor” by withholding the film rights, so that fans wouldn’t be disappointed by whomever they chose for the role.

"She is a stripped down version of my 'self'," she wrote in "Kinsey and Me," a collection that's part-memoir, past short stories. "My shadow, my projection — a celebration of my own freedom, independence and courage. Through Kinsey, I tell the truth, sometimes bitter, sometimes amusing. Through her, I look at the world with a 'mean' eye, exploring the dark side of human nature — my own in particular."

The Washington Post would call the Millhone mysteries “among the five or six best series any American has ever written,” and much of that and similar praise came from the notion that you weren’t actually reading the mysteries — you were in your mind’s eye and ear seeing and hearing tangible, palpable stories about a woman you’d want to know, told by a woman who knew how to spin a tale.

And Sue knew that part of telling a good story was not sharing every little detail:

"I did an about-face and veered into the sandwich shop,” Kinsey narrates in “T is for Trespass.” “What I ordered is none of your business, but it was really good.”

Truth be told, it’s my wife who is the real devotee. I’ve read a few completely, selected passages of many of the rest … and, because I can’t resist knowing who did what to whom, the endings of most of them.

(I have no doubt that I’m the sort of jamoke Kinsey was referencing when, in “I is for Innocent,” she said, “Thinking is hard work, which is why you don’t see a lot of people doing it.”)

These days it seems as though we have less and less control over our lives — particularly when it comes to all the devices that seem to monopolize our time. But when it comes to books, we still get to choose whom we let into our homes and how long we let them stay.

Sue Grafton purposely set Kinsey Millhone’s stories in a time frame before we were dominated by computers. For those who followed along for 35 years, these house guests were the best kind of company — the type who never catches you taking a peek at the clock; the sort you’d wish would never leave.

In seems only right to have Sue and Kinsey, from “C is for Corpse,” have the final word:

“Missing someone is a vague, unpleasant sensation, like gnawing anxiety. It isn’t as concrete as grief, but it’s just as pervasive and there’s no escaping it.”

— Mail Tribune copy editor Robert Galvin can be reached at rgalvin@mailtribune.com


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