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There will be no Z for mystery author Sue Grafton, who died at 77

By Colette Bancroft | Times Staff
Published: December 29, 2017 Updated: December 29, 2017 at 04:46 PM
Mystery writer Sue Grafton poses for a portrait during a visit to New York in Oct. 15, 2002, soon after publication of the novel, "'Q' for Quarry." Grafton based her story on a real murder, the case of a woman, still unidentified, whose body was found in a quarry outside Lompoc, Calif. [Associated Press (2002)]

Sue Grafton almost made it to Z.

Ms. Grafton, the author of the bestselling "alphabet" series of mysteries that began in 1982 with A Is for Alibi, died Thursday night at her home in Santa Barbara, Calif., of cancer. She was 77.

Her 25 mystery novels about California private investigator Kinsey Millhone were perennial bestsellers, translated into 28 languages and sold around the world. The most recent, Y Is for Yesterday, was published in August.

In a Facebook post, Ms. Graftonís daughter, Jamie Clark, wrote, "Many of you also know that she was adamant that her books would never be turned into movies or TV shows, and in that same vein, she would never allow a ghost writer to write in her name. Because of all of those things, and out of the deep abiding love and respect for our dear sweet Sue, as far as we in the family are concerned, the alphabet now ends at Y."

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Ms. Grafton, a native of Lousiville, Ky., was a pioneer among female crime fiction writers ó when she began in the 1980s, women were generally writing mysteries in the "cozy" mode rather than realistic crime novels. Her father had published mysteries, and she always wanted to follow in his footsteps. When she decided to try, she said, "I knew (the protagonist) had to be female; thatís my only area of expertise. Itís kept me connected to the character, in the action, in her skin."

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In a 2015 interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Ms. Grafton talked about her first career as a Hollywood screenwriter for 15 years. "I loved it at first. It was so glamorous, so heady. But after a while it began to wear me down. I donít work by committee. Some people do, but Iím too cranky."

She described writing A Is for Alibi as "digging my way under a prison wall with a teaspoon, but I got the hell out."

Ms. Grafton made a decision early on not to age Millhone in real time, but to set all the books about her in the 1980s, so that in 25 books the resourceful, wisecracking detective only aged about eight years.

"I wanted her to be credible as someone chasing after the bad guys. I wanted her to be in good shape," Grafton said.

It also let Ms. Grafton avoid a problem other mystery writers grapple with: how technology has changed investigations. "I love it that she has to do her sleuthing the old-fashioned way, no cellphone, no Internet. Iíve had readers whine about it, ĎCanít she have a cellphone?í No."

The Millhone books usually came out every two years. Steve Humphrey, Ms. Graftonís husband of 40 years, said in an interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal that, because she had been undergoing chemotherapy, she had not started writing a new book.

Ms. Graftonís fiction earned her many awards, including the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master, Boucherconís lifetime achievement award and the Ross Macdonald Literary Award ó notable because she set the Millhone books in Santa Teresa, the fictional California town Macdonald invented for his influential Lew Archer series.

"Sue Grafton was a trailblazer, an early and powerful female voice in crime fiction," said author Lisa Unger Friday. "How many mystery writers did she influence with the tough, funny, smart, pragmatic Kinsey Millhone? Impossible to say. But whatís certain is that Grafton forged the way for many of us, and her work will continue to inspire though she has passed on.

Ms. Grafton was widely popular with fans and with other mystery writers. In an interview this month with the Tampa Bay Times, author James Lee Burke included her in a list of "extremely generous people" that write crime fiction.

Other authors echoed the sentiment.

"Sue Grafton was very special, not only for her talent and being able to sustain a series decade after decade, but because success only made her more giving and caring of readers and fellow writers," author Michael Connelly said Friday. "She was so nice to me at all stages of my career. She was someone to learn from on all levels.

"She once invited my wife and I to the Kentucky Derby and it was one of the best experiences of my life. She had that thing wired and shared it with different friends and writers every year. She said up front you only get invited once because she had too many friends and writers she wanted to share it with."

In addition to Humphreys and Clark, Grafton is survived by another daughter, Leslie Twine; a son, Jay Schmidt; and several grandchildren.