Sue Taylor Grafton (April 24, 1940 – December 28, 2017) was an American author of detective novels. She is best known as the author of the "alphabet series" ("A" Is for Alibi, etc.) featuring private investigator Kinsey Millhone in the fictional city of Santa Teresa, California. The daughter of detective novelist C. W. Grafton, she said the strongest influence on her crime novels was author John D. MacDonald. Before her success with this series, she wrote screenplays for television movies.
Sue Grafton was born in Louisville, Kentucky, to C. W. Grafton (1909-1982) and Vivian Harnsberger, both of whom were the children of Presbyterian missionaries.
Her father was a municipal bond lawyer who also wrote mystery novels and her mother was a former high school chemistry teacher. Her father enlisted in the Army during World War II when she was three and returned when she was five, after which her home life started falling apart. Both parents became alcoholics and Grafton said "From the age of five onward, I was left to raise myself".
Grafton and her older sister Ann grew up in Louisville, where she went to Atherton High School. She attended the University of Louisville (first year) and Western Kentucky State Teachers College (now Western Kentucky University) in her sophomore and junior years before graduating from the University of Louisville in 1961 with a bachelor's degree in English Literature and minors in humanities and fine arts. She was a member of Pi Beta Phi.
After graduating, Grafton worked as a hospital admissions clerk, a cashier, and a medical secretary in Santa Monica and Santa Barbara, California.
Grafton's mother killed herself in 1960 after returning home from an operation to remove esophageal cancer brought on by years of drinking and smoking. Her father died in 1982, a few months before "A" Is for Alibi was published.
Grafton's father was enamored of detective fiction and wrote at night. He taught Grafton lessons on the writing and editing process and groomed her to be a writer. Inspired by her father, Grafton began writing when she was 18 and finished her first novel four years later. She continued writing and completed six more novels. Only two of these seven novels (Keziah Dane and The Lolly-Madonna War) were published. Grafton would later destroy the manuscripts for her five early, unpublished novels.
Unable to find success with her novels, Grafton turned to screenplays. Grafton worked for the next 15 years writing screenplays for television movies, including Sex and the Single Parent, Mark, I Love You, and Nurse. Her screenplay for Walking Through the Fire earned a Christopher Award in 1979. In collaboration with her husband, Steven Humphrey, she also adapted the Agatha Christie novels A Caribbean Mystery and Sparkling Cyanide for television and co-wrote A Killer in the Family and Love on the Run. She is credited with the story upon which the screenplay for the made for TV movie Svengali (1983) was based.
Her experience as a screenwriter taught her the basics of structuring a story, writing dialogue, and creating action sequences. Grafton then felt ready to return to writing fiction. While going through a "bitter divorce and custody battle that lasted six long years", Grafton imagined ways to kill or maim her ex-husband. Her fantasies were so vivid that she decided to write them down.
Grafton had been fascinated by mysteries series whose titles were related, such as John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee series, each of which included a color in the title, and Harry Kemelman's Rabbi Small series, each of which included a day of the week in the title. While reading Edward Gorey's The Gashlycrumb Tinies, a picture book with an alphabetized list of ways for children to die, Grafton decided to write a series of novels whose titles would follow the alphabet. She immediately sat down and made a list of all of the crime-related words that she knew.
These became the series now known as the "alphabet novels", featuring sleuth and private investigator Kinsey Millhone. The series is set in Santa Teresa, a fictionalized version of Santa Barbara. Grafton followed Ross Macdonald's lead, who created the fictional version of the city. Grafton described Kinsey Millhone as her alter ego, "the person I might have been had I not married young and had children.
The series begins with "A" Is for Alibi, published and set in 1982. "B" Is for Burglar, followed, then "C" Is for Corpse, each novel's title combining a letter with a word, except X. After the publication of "G" Is for Gumshoe, Grafton was able to quit her screenwriting job and focus on her writing. Since the publication of "A" is for Alibi, a new episode was released each year or so. The name of each book was a source of speculation. In May 2009, Grafton told Media Bistro that she was "just trying to figure out how to get from "U" Is for Undertow to "Z" Is for Zero" and that "just because she knows the endgame title for Z...doesn't mean she knows what V, W, X, and Y will be". Grafton said that the series would end with "Z" Is for Zero, but she died before writing it. Her daughter said Grafton would never allow a ghostwriter to write in her name and "as far as we in the family are concerned, the alphabet now ends at Y."
Grafton's novels have been published in 28 countries and in 26 languages. She refused to sell the film and television rights, because writing screenplays "cured" her of the desire to work with Hollywood. (TV movies in Japan, however, were adapted from ’B’ is for Burglar and ’D’ is for Deadbeat.) Grafton told her children her ghost would haunt them if they sold the film rights after her death. The books in the series were on The New York Times Best Seller list for an aggregate of about 400 weeks. F is for Fugitive was the first, entering at number 10 on the paperback list; by 1995 "L" is for Lawless entered the best seller list at number one followed by ten more in the series.
Grafton's style is characteristic of hardboiled detective fiction, according to the authors of 'G' is for Grafton, who describe it as "laconic, breezy, wise-cracking". The novels are framed as reports Kinsey writes in the course of her investigations, which are signed off in the epilogue of each novel. The First-person narrative allows the reader to see through Kinsey's eyes, who chronicles various descriptions of "eccentric buildings and places", giving depth to the narrative. The repeated descriptions of the Santa Barbara shoreline (chronicled as Kinsey's early morning runs), are "skillful, evocative writing of a caliber that takes Grafton well beyond being categorized as 'merely' a writer of detective fiction and into the so-called mainstream of 'serious' American fiction."
Grafton first married in 1959, aged 18, to James L. Flood, with whom she had a son and a daughter. The two divorced by the time Grafton graduated from college in 1961. Her second marriage was with Al Schmidt in 1962 but it ended with protracted divorce and custody proceedings over their daughter.
She married her third husband, Steven F. Humphrey, in 1978. They divided their time between Santa Barbara, California, and Louisville, Kentucky; Humphrey taught at universities in both cities. In 2000, the couple bought and later restored Lincliff, a 28-acre Louisville estate once owned by hardware baron William Richardson Belknap.
Grafton died at Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara on December 28, 2017, after a two-year battle with cancer.