In my last post, I mentioned my early love of Agatha Christie. As an adult, I’ve absolutely loved the Kinsey Milhone books by Sue Grafton.
Sue Grafton didn't write cozies, but neither did she write blood-and-gore thrillers. Her main protagonist is a smart, savvy professional who is highly competent but doesn't take herself too seriously. Her books hint at darker themes without being disturbing, and have a lot of humor without being silly or absurd.
She also helped to revolutionize the stereotypical hard-boiled mystery formula. Prior to the 1980s, whodunits were primarily a "good ol' boys’ club" where the only real roles for women were femme fatale or victim. Casting 30-something, twice-divorced Kinsey Milhone as the gumshoe opened up the entire genre to new emotions, themes, and humor–not to mention a generation of female sleuths, including my own Fenway and Bernadette.
As Milhone travels through the alphabet, she doesn’t just check off the crimes solved, but actually wrestles with the violence of the past.
“Most of the hard-boiled male detectives go through murder and mayhem, and it has absolutely no impact on their personalities,” she said in an interview with The New York Times in 1985. “I find it more interesting to see what the constant exposure to violence and death really does to a human being, how a person incorporates that into their psyche.”
Recommended Sue Grafton books (note: while the stories do build, you don’t need to read every book in the series to enjoy them individually):
- A is for Alibi. The first in the Kinsey Milhone Alphabet series, this reached out and grabbed me from the first paragraph. This was not only a propulsive, enjoyable read, but it's also really well written. Grafton really makes you see everything that Milhone sees. And the first sex scene is incredibly hot without being graphic in the slightest—I can't believe she pulled that off.
- B is for Burglar. As much as I liked A is for Alibi, I loved B is for Burglar. Talk about a page turner—I couldn't put it down. Even more amazing was that I enjoyed the book so much even though I had figured out the central mystery about ten chapters before Kinsey Millhone did. Often, solving a mystery early in the book is frustrating, but it was done in a way that I believed Kinsey wouldn't have pieced together, and I was really looking forward to each reveal that further confirmed my theory. I don't think any mystery writer has ever managed to keep me this engaged if I figure out the whodunit before the sleuth.
- F is for Fugitive. This book started a little on the slow side as the characters get introduced. But there’s something stunning that happens in Chapter 8, and the book never lets its foot off the gas after that happens—in fact, after I got to Chapter 8, I only put the book down once to go to sleep, then picked it up again the minute I woke up the next day.
- L is for Lawless. In one scene, Kinsey sleuths disguised as a hotel maid dusting baseboards and quips "tough to picture the boy detectives doing this."
- N is for Noose. Hired by a detective’s window to solve a cold case, Kinsey initially agrees with the majority of small town residents that some things should remain a mystery. Until she’s assaulted in a clear attempt to deter her. Anyone who’s ever read a detective novel knows the best way to keep a PI on a case is to try to threaten them, and Kinsey dives into the case with renewed passion.
- X. X is a complex book that slowly twists together three narrative arcs. While some complained that this disrupted the momentum of the book, I found it to be a tightly-written thriller that delivers on all three plot threads, and ends with a few details unresolved, leading readers directly into Y is for Yesterday.
- Y is for Yesterday. The final of Grafton’s novels–she was so close to completing the series!–Y is for Yesterday is the darkest, but not necessarily Grafton’s finest, work. Still, it’s certainly worth a read.