Detective novelist known for the Alphabet thrillers

Born: April 24, 1940;

Died: December 28, 2017

SUE Grafton, who has died aged 77, was an American detective novelist who was internationally renowned for her series of ‘alphabet’ crime thriller books, which began in 1982 with A is for Alibi and starred Grafton’s recurring lead character Kinsey Millhone, a police officer turned private eye in the fictional city of Santa Teresa, California (a stand-in for Santa Barbara). Following the success of the first book, Grafton wrote almost exclusively of Kinsey’s adventures; Y is for Yesterday, the 25th and now final book of the planned 26-part series, was published four months before she died.

Grafton was one of the key contemporary figures in American crime writing, and her 35-year career earned her lifetime achievement awards from the British Crime Writers’ Association (2008) and Mystery Writers of America (2009). She sold millions of books around the world – reportedly in 28 countries and 26 languages – and was an inspirational figure to female crime writers who followed. “She was amazingly generous to me when I was starting out and remained a good and supportive pal,” said Val McDermid in tribute, “and Kinsey Millhone was one of the pioneering female PIs who showed the rest of us the way."

Yet Grafton might have been even more successful had she agreed to let her titles be adapted for film or television. As a former screenwriter herself, she worked mainly in movies for television in the 1970s and ‘80s, and was unimpressed enough with the process to refuse to subject her own works to it. A writer who preferred to work in solitude and liked books to work as “movies of the mind”, she saw Debra Winger as Kinsey Millhone, but did not expect her fans to agree.

“The minute an actress steps into the role, 50 percent of my readers would be up in arms, claiming she was wrong for the part,” she said in a 1996 interview published on her website. “And they'd be right. Hollywood can't believe writers aren't panting for the money and the recognition … but I wrote in Hollywood for 15 years and believe me, I'm cured. I know how the game is played and it's not one I admire. Because of Kinsey, I can afford to have integrity.”

In fact, the closest analogue to the hard-edged but all too human Kinsey was Grafton herself. Kinsey was “the person I might have been had I not married young and had children,” she told the Guardian in 2013. “I think of us as one soul in two bodies and she got the good one ... I’m sure that she will live in this world long after I’m gone.”

Sue Grafton was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1940, the daughter of Cornelius Warren ‘CW’ Grafton and Vivian Harnsberger, who had met in their youth in China, where their parents were Presbyterian missionaries. Grafton had an older sister, Ann, and her father was a lawyer and a part-time crime novelist, who published his own series of linked-title thrillers in the 1940s. While his daughter used the alphabet as her connection, CW Grafton planned to write a nursery rhyme with his titles; The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope and The Rope Began to Hang the Butcher were published, but The Butcher Began to Kill the Ox was never completed.

Both her parents were alcoholics, and Grafton has spoken of essentially having to parent herself from the age of five. Yet her father taught her many lessons about the technique and craft of writing, and she started her first novel at the age of 18, finishing it four years later in 1962. By this point she had graduated from the University of Louisville in 1961 with a degree in English literature, been married and divorced with two children, and married again (divorce also awaited this marriage, but not before her third child arrived). Her mother took her own life in 1960, and more than two decades later her father died just months before A is for Alibi was published.

Upon graduating, Grafton moved to California and took a variety of clerical jobs while writing the rest of her seven early novels. Two of these were published and well-reviewed, Keziah Dane (1967) and The Lolly-Madonna War (1969), and the latter was filmed as Lolly-Madonna XXX in 1973, starring Jeff Bridges and co-written by Grafton. This film was the starting point for a screenwriting career which lasted well into the 1980s.

It was during this period that she met her third husband Steve Humphrey, who she was married to for more than 35 years, until her death. Together, the pair collaborated on the TV movie scripts for adaptations of Agatha Christie’s A Caribbean Mystery and Sparkling Cyanide, the Robert Mitchum and James Spader-starring A Killer in the Family (all 1983), and Love on the Run (1985) with Alec Baldwin. Grafton also created the TV movie Nurse (1980) and its short-lived offshoot series the year after.

Based between Santa Barbara, California and her estate in Louisville, Kentucky in later life, Grafton died in Santa Barbara of cancer. As averse to ghost writers as she was the Hollywood system, her family have stated they won’t allow the planned Z is for Zero to be written by anyone else; “as far as we… are concerned, the alphabet now ends in Y.”