Monday, November 5, 2018

Entering a Fictional World - by Brenda Chapman


Of all the books you have read over the years, crime novel or otherwise, which book or books created a world and characters that you would like to live yourself? Which character would you want to be?

The first character who comes to mind is Sue Grafton’s ground-breaking Kinsey Millhone. Kinsey lives in a somewhat simpler time — the sixties to eighties approximately — in the fictional town of Santa Teresa, California before climate change, cellphones and the Internet. She has an apartment above a converted garage and works as a self-employed Private Investigator.

The best thing about Kinsey’s life, apart from her ability to solve interesting cases, is the simplicity of her existence. She has no interest in clothes and travels with a simple black dress in her car that she wears whenever the occasion arises. She’s been married twice, but as she puts it: More often than not, I rejoiced in my freedom, my mobility and my solitude.

Kinsey is particularly attached to her landlord Henry, a man in his eighties who loves to bake, and he and his elderly siblings become her family. She has the odd lover, but in the main is independent and fearless. She has a wise-cracking, fine sense of humour and a dogged intelligence.

Kinsey is in her thirties, an age I wouldn’t say no to reliving and she ages much slower than the rest of us through the series, which famously takes titles from each letter of the alphabet. She’s made a niche for herself in a primarily male domain, much like her creator Sue Grafton.


Grafton worked as a hospital admissions clerk, a cashier, and a medical secretary and wrote in her spare time. Her father wrote detective novels at night and taught her lessons on the writing and editing process and groomed her to be a writer. She completed her first book at age twenty-two and subsequently wrote six more novels with only two finding a publisher. She made a career change into screenwriting where she had more success and learned the basics of structuring a story, writing dialogue, and creating action sequences. Only then, did she return to writing novels and Kinsey Millhone was born.

I met Sue Grafton — a chance meeting at Left Coast Crime in Monterey California in 2014. We crossed paths in an empty hallway as I was making my way to be on a panel and she was about to be interviewed on stage. She asked if I knew how to silence her phone and we put our heads together trying to figure it out. I only had a work Blackberry at the time and had no experience with other brands. In the end, I was no help, but I remember how gracious and friendly she was even in such a short meeting. I later sat in the audience listening to her being interviewed. She spoke of the struggle making it in the writing industry in the early days. Her warmth and sense of humour were evident and she put both qualities into her writing and into Kinsey Millhone.


Sadly, Sue Grafton died in December 2017 before completing the final letter of the alphabet, but her books will live on for future generations of crime fiction fans. I feel fortunate to have listened to her speak about her life and her writing and to have read almost every book in her series. She was one of truly gifted writers and a role model for women in the industry.

Kinsey Millhone wasn’t the first female private eye in crime fiction, but her endearing eccentricity and resourceful smarts have made her the paradigm for a generation of others. -Seattle Times



5 comments:

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Thanks for the post, Brenda. A nice reminder for me to read some more of Sue Grafton's novels. She had such a great voice.

Brenda Chapman said...

Yes, she wrote some enjoyable reads with a good bit of humour included.

Susan C Shea said...

Sue Grafton was the easiest person to meet and talk to, the most receptive star in the crime fiction firmament, someone who exuded good cheer and a lack of ego. Nice to hear your memory of chatting with her.

Cathy Ace said...

Yes - the world Sue Grafton "created" is a delight; luckily for Kinsey she'll now live in it forever...unluckily for us, we'll never know her Z story :-( A terrible loss. And you're right - Sue was a warm, supportive and encouraging person.

Brenda Chapman said...

Even in our brief meeting, I felt Sue's warmth and wish I'd gotten to spend more time with her.