Thursday, May 9, 2013

Kinsey and Me - Sue Grafton

I've been taking a nostalgic walk down memory lane with Kinsey Millhone through reading this collection of short stories by Sue Grafton. I accidentally left my current book at home the other day & realised I had nothing to read at lunchtime. Thank goodness I work in a library! I saw this among the new arrivals & thought a short story or two would be perfect lunchtime reading.

I can remember when I first met Kinsey. It must have been the early 1990s & the first book in the series I read was G is for Gumshoe. I'd read a few other series featuring female private investigators, I particularly remember Sara Paretsky & Marcia Muller (who I'm still reading). I was working at my first library & I must have picked up G is for Gumshoe from the shelves as it was published a couple of years earlier. I loved it & went back to A is for Alibi & read all the earlier books. Since then I've read all the books as they've been published & I see that the next book, W is for Wasted, is due out later this year.

The attraction of these books for me is that Kinsey is still living in the 1980s. When the series began in 1981, Grafton decided that Kinsey would age one year for every 2 1/2 books. So Kinsey has aged from 32 in 1981 to her early 40s in the latest books but it's still the 1980s in Santa Teresa, the fictional Californian town where Kinsey lives. She conducts her investigations without mobile phones, computers, the internet or many of the forensic tools available to modern day investigators. She relies on a phone with an answering machine, writing notes on index cards & physically going to government offices or the reference library to look things up. The books have become historical novels which for me is a large part of their charm.

The first half of Kinsey & Me consists of a selection of short stories Grafton has written featuring Kinsey that were published in the late 1980s. For me, the books published in the 1980s & early 90s represent Kinsey's Golden Age. Reading the first story, Between the Sheets, was so nostalgic. A woman is sitting in Kinsey's office telling her that she's found her lover dead in her apartment. They'd argued the night before which several neighbours overheard. She threatened to kill him & had just bought a handgun which she describes in great detail. She didn't call the police but, after finding him shot dead & lying in her daughter's room, she picks up the gun lying beside him, puts it down again & runs out of the apartment,. When Kinsey arrives at the apartment to investigate, the body is gone & there's no evidence that the story is true at all. Kinsey has the case worked out before the police arrive.

The charm of this series is Kinsey's voice. The narrative is first person & Kinsey has the wry, amused voice of all the best private investigators. She's not quite the loner that Marlowe & Spade were, though, even though she was orphaned young & grew up living with her Aunt Gin. Twice divorced & wary of new relationships, Kinsey nevertheless has a circle of friends that have become her family. Her landlord, Henry Pitts, is the most important of these but his siblings (all in their 80s & 90s) & restaurant owner, Rosie, all make regular appearances.

Here's the opening of another story in the collection, The Parker Shotgun. All the novels & stories begin in a similar way, introducing Kinsey for new readers & making fans settle down with a smile.

My name is Kinsey Millhone. I'm a private investigator, licensed, bonded, insured; white, female, age thirty-two, unmarried and physically fit. That Monday morning, I was sitting in my office with my feet up, wondering what life would bring, when a woman walked in and tossed a photograph on my desk. My introduction to the Parker shotgun began with a graphic view of its apparent effect when fired at a formerly nice-looking man at close range. His face was still largely intact, but he had no use now for a pocket comb. With effort, I kept my expression neutral as I glanced up at her.
"Somebody killed my husband."
"I can see that," I said.

The book opens with an essay about the beginnings of the series & the second half consists of more personal stories Grafton wrote after the death of her mother. I have to admit that the Kinsey stories were the reason I picked up the book & I've had a lovely time reading them over the last week.


  1. I have not read Sue Grafton, but I have noticed that aging is a problem for long series of books. I have read some of the 87th Precinct books by Ed McBain which he wrote starting in the 1950s until his death in the early 2000s. The early books are set in the 1950s. Then I jumped to the later books and I noticed that they were set in the 2000s with modern technology and references to recent events, and the characters had only aged slightly. In real life they would have all been retired.

    1. I think it's a problem for many authors whose characters start off middle aged & then go on detecting for long periods. Poirot, Dalgleish & Wexford are other examples. That's why I think Grafton was clever to age Kinsey so slowly. The books also have that retro, pre-CSI appeal of how she goes about her investigations too.

  2. Or Flavia de Luce, who has been eleven in six books now! :) With all the series I read and avidly follow, I've never read this one! I wonder why? In a way it's good to know there's a series I can start and have a long way to go in.

    1. I haven't read the Flavia books although I've heard good reviews. The Graftons have recently been reprinted so you shouldn't have any trouble finding the early books if you decide to give them a try.