Sue Taylor Grafton (born April 24, 1940) is a contemporary 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 has said the strongest influence on her crime novels is author Ross Macdonald. Prior to success with this series, she wrote screenplays for television movies.
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Sue Grafton is the daughter of novelist C. W. Grafton and Vivian Harnsberger, both of whom were the children of Presbyterian ministers. Grafton and her sister Ann were raised in Louisville. The town features in some of her novels.
She attended both 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 is 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 began writing when she was 18 and finished her first novel four years later. She continued writing and completed six more manuscripts. Two of these seven novels were published. 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 also 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.
She had long been fascinated by mysteries that had related titles, including those by John D. MacDonald, whose titles referenced colors, and Harry Kemelman, who used days of the week. While reading Edward Gorey's The Gashlycrumb Tinies, an alphabetical picture book of children who die by various means, she had the idea to write a series of novels based on the alphabet. She immediately sat down and made a list of all of the crime-related words that she knew.
This exercise led to her best-known works, a chronological series of mystery novels. Known as "the alphabet novels," the stories are set in and around the fictional town of Santa Teresa, California. It is based on Santa Barbara, outside of which Grafton maintains a home in the suburb of Montecito. (Grafton chose to use the name Santa Teresa as a tribute to the author Ross Macdonald, who had used it as a fictional name for Santa Barbara in his own novels.)
In the series, Grafton writes from the perspective of a female private investigator named Kinsey Millhone, who lives in Santa Teresa. In apparent tribute to Macdonald, Millhone refers to her private investigator license as a "photostat," as did Macdonald's character Archer. Grafton's first book of this series is "A" Is for Alibi, written and set in 1982. The series continues with "B" Is for Burglar, "C" Is for Corpse, and so on through the alphabet. After the publication of "G" Is for Gumshoe, Grafton was able to quit her screenwriting job and focus on her novels.
The timeline of the series is slower than real time. "Q" Is for Quarry, for example, is set in 1987, even though it was written in 2002. Grafton has publicly stated that the final novel in the series will be titled "Z" Is for Zero.
Grafton's novels have been published in 28 countries and in 26 languages, including Bulgarian and Indonesian. She has refused to sell the film and television rights to her books, as her time writing screenplays had "cured" her of the desire to work with Hollywood. Grafton has also threatened to haunt her children if they sell the film rights after she is dead.
Grafton's "B" Is for Burglar and "C" Is for Corpse won the first two Anthony Awards for Best Novel (1986 & 1987), which are selected by the attendees of the annual Bouchercon World Mystery Convention, ever awarded. She has won the Anthony Best Novel Award once more (1991 for "G" Is for Gumshoe) and has been the recipient of three Shamus Awards. Additionally in 1987 Grafton's short story, "The Parker Shotgun", won the Anthony Award for Best Short Story.
On June 13, 2000, Sue Grafton was the recipient of the 2000 YWCA of Lexington Smith-Breckinridge Distinguished Woman of Achievement Award.
In 2004, she received the Ross Macdonald Literary Award, which is given to "a California writer whose work raises the standard of literary excellence." In 2008 Grafton was awarded the Cartier Dagger by the British Crime Writers' Association, honoring a lifetime's achievement in the field. Grafton received the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 2009. In 2013, she was presented Bouchercon's Lifetime Achievement Award.
In 2014, she was a Guest of Honor at Left Coast Crime. She has also been nominated for a 2014 Shamus Award in the category of Best Hardcover Novel, which she has won three times previously.
Grafton, who has been divorced twice, has been married for more than 20 years to Steven F. Humphrey. She has three children from previous marriages and several grandchildren, including granddaughters named Erin and Kinsey. Grafton and her husband live in Montecito, California, and Louisville, Kentucky, as Humphrey teaches at universities in both cities.
In popular culture
- In the "Mayham" episode of The Sopranos, Carmela sits by Tony's bedside in the hospital, reading Sue Grafton's "G" Is for Gumshoe.
- In the "Local Ad" episode of The Office, Phyllis goes to a Sue Grafton book signing at the mall to try to get her to be in the Dunder-Mifflin Scranton branch commercial. She is told by Michael Scott not to take no for an answer. After waiting in line, Phyllis meets Grafton, only to be rebuffed by her. Phyllis continues to ask until she is thrown out of the store. Meanwhile, Andy and Creed talk about how "crazy hot" the author is.
- A scene in the film Stranger Than Fiction shows Prof. Hilbert reading a Sue Grafton novel ("I" Is for Innocent) while serving as a lifeguard.
- In the Season 7 episode of Gilmore Girls titled "To Whom It May Concern," Sookie confesses that she sits at the ski lodge reading "R" Is for Ricochet and "S" Is for Silence.
- In the television series Reaper, one of the things Ben looks for in his ideal woman is an interest in Sue Grafton novels. He does eventually find a love interest in a nurse who replies with "G Is For Gumshoe" when he asks if she's reading a Sue Grafton novel.
- In Stieg Larsson's novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, protagonist Mikael Blomkvist sits down with "a mystery by Sue Grafton."
- In the Superego Podcast Season 3 Episode 14, guest star and famous Twitter personality Rob Delaney impersonates Sue Grafton.
- In Lawrence Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr series, Sue Grafton's alphabet series of novels is discussed on several occasions. Block has a running gag in which Rhodenbarr and his friend Carolyn make up fictitious titles for Grafton's books based on the alphabet. At one point Carolyn states that she is convinced Kinsey is gay (ostensibly because Carolyn is too) and provides some argument to support her position, though Rhodenbarr is skeptical.