Born 24 April 1940, Louisville, Kentucky
Daughter of Cornelius W. and Vivian Harnsberger Grafton; married twice and divorced; Steven F. Humphrey; children: three
Sue Grafton changed the face of fictional hardboiled private eyes with the introduction of Kinsey Milhone, a Southern California private investigator who is savvy, irreverent, and female. For this heroic adaptation of the previously male-centered genre, Grafton has been called a pioneer, and her book A Is for Alibi (1982) a "landmark novel."
Grafton grew up amidst detective stories in a book-filled household. Her mother, a high school chemistry teacher, was a voracious reader; and her father, an attorney, wrote one novel and three detective mysteries. Grafton has frequently acknowledged her father's influence on her literary life, telling a 1995 People reporter she had "regrets" that she had never, as an adult, discussed writing techniques with him. She's also been open about her parents' alcoholism and her feeling that she coped with it by becoming self-reliant.
Before Grafton turned to the detective genre, she wrote two published novels, Keziah Dane (1967) and The Lolly-Madonna War (1969). The first was reviewed as promising; the second was panned. It led, however, to a spot in Hollywood adapting The Lolly-Madonna War to a screenplay for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. From there, Grafton moved on to further screenplay writing. Over the next 12 years, she scripted episodes for a variety of television series, including the popular situation comedy Rhoda.
Grafton never liked working in Hollywood, telling a 1998 Publishers Weekly interviewer she "hated the democratic process [of the industry's writing collaborations] where everybody got a vote." She especially hated the fact that nonwriters had clout over her scripts. Nevertheless, while in Hollywood, she accrued numerous screen credits, including Sex and the Single Parent (1979) and a television movie adaptation of Agatha Christie's Caribbean Mystery (1983).
In 1978 one of her teleplay cowriters, Steven F. Humphrey, became her third husband. She had married the first time while still an English major at the University of Louisville; from this marriage, she has one child. She married a second time in 1961, moved to California the next year, and has two children from that marriage.
She wrote A Is for Alibi while working through the rage of a six-year child custody battle with her second husband. Routing her anger through the novel, she created a hero fashioned after herself, a twice-divorced, brunette Southern California woman. At the time, with little knowledge of the real world of a private eye, she built her alphabetical world, instead, around the character. "Being female was the one area where I felt I knew what I was talking about," Grafton said in a 1990 Publishers Weekly interview, "and what I did in essence was to make myself my prime character." At the end of A, Kinsey Milhone emerges from a garbage can and, at point-blank range, shoots the bad guy, who is modeled after Grafton's second husband.
Though Kinsey Milhone has aged only one year every two-and-a-half books, beginning at age 32 in 1982, the character has evolved. In fact, one of Grafton's goals for her hero, she told the New York Times, was to "let her grow and change." And she has, with new relationships and situations being informed by those in previous books. At the same time, her deepening expertise is fueled by Grafton's aggressive research into guns, self-defense, and police procedure.
Grafton has portrayed her belief that detective genre heros can be more than light entertainment. She told Publishers Weekly she sees the fictional private eye as "an observer…who comments on society and on family relationships and on the state of justice." Indeed, as her hero moves through Santa Teresa, a town based on Santa Barbara, California, she sees the underside of society and does her utmost to clean it up—a hero's efforts. Grafton has won numerous awards for her alphabetical series, including at least five Doubleday Mystery Guild awards (DMGA). The series includes A Is for Alibi (Mysterious Stranger award), B Is for Burglar (Shamus and Anthony awards, 1985), C Is for Corpse (1986), D Is for Deadbeat (1987), E Is for Evidence (DMGA, 1988), F Is for Fugitive (DMGA, Falcon award, 1989), G Is for Gumshoe (DMGA, Shamus and Anthony awards, 1990), H Is for Homicide (DMGA, American Mystery Award, 1991), I Is for Innocent (DMGA, 1992), J Is for Judgment (1993), K Is for Killer (Shamus award, 1994), L Is for Lawless (1995), M Is for Malice (1996), N Is for Noose (1998), and O Is for Outlaw (1999).
Grafton's detective books have financed a lifestyle she herself characterizes as simple but that includes a home near Santa Barbara on the California coast as well as one in Louisville, Kentucky. By 1998 Publishers Weekly was reporting close to 10 million copies of her books in print and translations into 26 languages. Her publisher, Holt, announced a one million-copy first printing for M Is for Malice, a first for the publisher as well as the author.
One of the most common questions asked of Grafton is what will happen when she reaches "Z"? That day is projected to come at about 2018; Kinsey Milhone will be 40; Grafton will be 78. Echoing the manner of her hero, Grafton answered the question on her web site in 1999: "Your guess is as good as mine on this one."
CA (1997). CBY (1995). WW in America (1998).
NYTBR (28 July 1991, 17 May 1998). People (30 Oct 1995). PW (13 Apr. 1990, 20 Apr. 1998). WSJ (18 May 1998).