Lessons I Learned From Sue Grafton and Kinsey Millhone


When I learned Sue Grafton, author of the Kinsey Millhone detective novels, had died on December 28, I immediately recalled the days she allowed me to disrupt her writing schedule to film my documentary, “Women of Mystery: Three Writers Who Forever Changed Detective Fiction.” I had convinced her that she, along with Sara Paretsky and Marcia Muller, had committed a revolutionary act that needed to be recorded on film. That revolutionary act changed a genre. It also changed the way many women readers saw themselves. I was one of those readers.

When Kinsey Millhone was born in 1982, she was one of the first professional female detectives to appear on the scene. With the death of Sue Grafton, the Kinsey Millhone detective novels (A Is For Alibi, B Is For Burgler, etc.) will have taken Kinsey as close to the end of the alphabet as one can get without reaching the end. Y is for Yesterday, published in August, was Kinsey’s 25th investigation.

In 1990, I was one term away from completing graduate studies at the UCLA film school. I had accepted a yearlong fellowship to work on women’s issues in the office of Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder. An intern in the Congresswoman’s office introduced me to three female private eyes: Kinsey Millhone, Muller’s Sharon McCone, and Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski. Little did I realize that her act of generosity would absorb my life for ten years. Due to the rigors of fundraising, I was tempted to give up on completing the film many times, but each time I’d read another of the novels to absorb the detectives’ stubborn persistence. Kinsey Millhone’s sense of humor, which she often used to get through hopeless moments, taught me that I could acknowledge feelings of defeat without giving into them.

This was perhaps the most important lesson I learned from Kinsey. I also learned important lessons from Sue Grafton.

While I was making WOMEN OF MYSTERY, Grafton confessed that at one point she felt her writing was getting flat because she had started to self-censor. “I realized Kinsey was sulking. She was pouting because I was beginning to monitor and modify her behavior. So, in order to get back in touch with her and to beg her forgiveness, I had to walk around my house for two weeks cussing like a sailor. After about two weeks, I felt so much better. Kinsey was going: ‘All right. Now we’re back in business.’ She was willing to continue with her adventures.”

Lesson I learned: Never let anyone stop me from saying what I want to say or being who I know I am.

When she told me that writing wasn’t easy for her, I was a little surprised. After all, Kinsey’s voice sounded so natural on the page. “The hard thing about writing is that you’re always up against your demons. To sit and look at a computer screen is like looking into a mirror. You’re forced to face all your inadequacies. But writers must always be at risk. To write well is to put yourself out on the absolute edge of your ability. And when you work at that place, you’re always afraid and the fear is what gives you the magic.”

Lesson I learned: Look your fear in the face and then embrace it.

With genuine curiosity, she confided: “Sometimes I think about ‘Z Is For Zero’ and I wonder what will happen to Kinsey then. I’m sure she will tell me. When the time comes she will make her wishes plain and I am there to serve and obey.”

Lesson I learned: It’s not so important to know how everything ends. It’s more important to trust your passion.

Upon learning that Sue Grafton had died, I wondered if perhaps Kinsey Millhone had no interest in reaching the end of the alphabet. This way, we could always feel there was one more case to solve.

Thank you, Sue Grafton, for giving us Kinsey Millhone.

WOMEN OF MYSTERY: Three Writers Who Forever Changed Detective Fiction inspired an immensely popular screening-reading program that travelled to public libraries all across the country.




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  • Sterling Kinnell

    I enjoyed this tribute to Sue Grafton. I have my own list of things I learned from Sue and Kinsey, some profound, some as trivial as learning how to peel garlic, but I treasure all the lessons they gave me. And thank you also for making your documentary. Those three writers most definitely did change detective fiction forever–and the women who read their novels.

    • TwointheMiddle

      Sorry for delay in replying to your comment, which I appreciated. I would love to know what you learned from Sue and Kinsey, in addition to how to peel garlic. I’ve been thinking about it… I think Kinsey made me feel more emboldened to trust my intuition and to speak my mind.

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