"G" Is for Grafton: The World of Kinsey Millhone

by Natalie Hevener Kaufman & Carol McGinnis Kay

Published by Owl Books

466 pages, 2000



Newly in paperback and fully revised and updated through to "O" Is for Outlaw, the Edgar Award-winning guide to the world of Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone.

With the cooperation of Sue Grafton, who provided unprecedented access to her working journals, authors Natalie Hevener Kaufman and Carol McGinnis Kay have created a fully dimensional biography of Kinsey Millhone that will answer every question readers have ever had. The book includes a time line, maps, floor plans, a case log and photographs.

"G" Is for Grafton is also a revealing journey into the mind and work habits of Kinsey's creator. You'll learn why Grafton chose to write detective fiction and how she responds to runaway plot lines and unruly characters. You'll find out which titles for the series she has discarded, what she plans for Kinsey's future, and how she sees their evolving relationship. Ultimately, you'll understand why Grafton is so esteemed in the field of detective fiction and, from an analysis of her craft, why she has earned such a prominent place in American letters.




Kinsey's Biography

"I like my history just as it is."

Sue Grafton says she lets Kinsey Millhone's personal history unfold from novel to novel at the pace Kinsey chooses. In some novels we learn more about her life than in others. Now that Grafton is more than halfway through the alphabet, the biography we can assemble is amazingly consistent, psychologically coherent, and richly detailed. From the fifteen novels, a vivid picture emerges -- like a Polaroid taken at a family picnic -- of the past Kinsey who shaped the present Kinsey we like so much.

Early Childhood
Looming above everything else in Kinsey's life is the death of her parents when she was a young child. She herself sees the event as pivotal: "In many ways, my whole sense of myself was embedded in the fact of my parents' death in an automobile wreck when I was five" (J 32). The trauma of this event and her subsequent eccentric rearing by her Aunt Virginia have affected virtually everything about who she is now and how she lives.

From bits and pieces in the novels from A to 0, we can put together a narrative of the car accident in which Kinsey's parents, Randy and Rita Millhone, were killed. On Memorial Day weekend, 1955, Kinsey was barely five years old (b. May 5, 1950). She was in the backseat of the family car, her father was driving, and her mother was in the front passenger seat. They were en route to Lompoc, California, when a boulder crashed down the mountainside and struck the car. Her father lost control of the vehicle and was killed in the crash. Kinsey was "thrust down against the floorboards on impact, wedged in by the crushed frame" (C 64). She carefully "reached around the edge of the front seat, where I found my father's hand, unresisting, passive, and soft. I tucked my fingers around his, not understanding he was dead, simply thinking everything would be all right as long as I had him" (F 260). Kinsey couldn't reach her mother, who died after several hours of weeping. She remembers, "My mother cried for a while and then she stopped. I still hear it sometimes in my sleep. Not the sobs. The silence after that" (A 142). It took six hours for rescuers from the fire department and the police department to pry Kinsey from the "wreckage, trapped there with the dead whom I loved who had left me for all time" (C 65).

In every novel, Kinsey refers to the deaths of her parents, sometimes only in passing and sometimes for a page or two. The lengthier passages always focus, on the same details: the boulder, the immediacy of her father's death, the crying and then the silence from her mother, the lengthy entrapment, and the sense of abandonment. One of the more recent accounts focuses on Kinsey's ambivalence at the sight of those "big guys with their guns and nightsticks" who pulled her from the wreckage: the five-year-old was torn between "horror" and "relief " by their appearance, triggering, Kinsey realizes, a lifetime of difficulty in dealing with authority figures (N 217).

Significantly, in every account, long and short, Kinsey mentions her own age at the time of the accident. Five is a highly vulnerable and impressionable age at which to endure such an overwhelming loss. Such a child is still greatly dependent on adults for meeting the most basic physical and emotional needs. The impact of so big a loss at so young an age must be great, essentially reshaping the adult that the child becomes. It's no wonder that as late as "O" Is for Outlaw, Kinsey will still be struggling with fear of abandonment in all of her personal relationships.

Kinsey doesn't tell us much about the days following the wreck except that she "felt cold and little" (G 76). She refers once to the funeral service (C 104), but she never tells us anything about the service nor does she mention shedding any tears. She went to live with her mother's sister, Virginia Kinsey, a secretary at California Fidelity Insurance in Santa Teresa, who was unmarried and unprepared, financially or emotionally, for suddenly acquiring a child. We must assume she was also in deep grief herself, since she and Rita had been close. There is no description of the aunt and niece adjusting to each other. Instead, totally ignoring her aunt, who, she later realizes, must have hovered nearby, worried and concerned, Kinsey "established a separate residence in an oversize cardboard box" (I 48). Kinsey remembers: "I created a little world for myself in a cardboard box, filled with blankets and pillows, lighted by a table lamp with a sixty-watt bulb. I was very particular about what I ate. I would make sandwiches for myself, cheese and pickle, or Kraft olive pimento cheese, cut in four equal fingers, which I would arrange on a plate. I had to do everything myself, and it all had to be just so [in "I" Is for Innocent she explains that she made the sandwiches exactly the way her mother had, 48].... I would take my food and crawl into my container, where I would look at picture books and nibble, stare at the cardboard ceiling, hum to myself, and sleep. For four months, maybe five, I withdrew into that ecosphere of artificial warmth, that cocoon of grief" (J 133).

Inside "this small corrugated refuge," Kinsey taught herself to read and to tie her own shoelaces (J 133). She amused herself with shadow puppets and "endless picture books" filled with fantasies and stories about exotic places (I 48). She ran her own "home cinema" of mental projections of her parents. She looked after herself -- preparing, food, eating, sleeping, teaching, and entertaining herself -- inside an enclosed space under her exclusive control. Kinsey used her "little closed-circuit system designed to deal with grief" quite effectively (I 48). She learned in a few lonely months to parent herself, another way of saying she grew up. Of course, this was not the healthy maturation of a child who gradually learns to internalize lessons from trusted parent-figures and to develop a sense of independence throughout childhood and teenage years. This was an abrupt and brutal transition that forced Kinsey into adult responsibility for her own physical and emotional needs before she had the skills necessary to meet either need fully.

With this traumatic childhood experience, there can be little surprise that the adult Kinsey has "a special weakness for small, enclosed spaces, a barely disguised longing to return to the womb" (I 48). Just as the five-year-old sought refuge in the cardboard box and just as Kinsey made "'houses' . . . using blankets draped over tabletops and chairs" throughout her childhood (O 236), the adult likes her small one-room apartment, her small office without a secretary, her small VW bug, and in the early novels she often sleeps naked, wrapped in a quilt on her sofa. Neither are we surprised that the only food we see Kinsey prepare is a variety of egg, cheese, or peanut-butter sandwiches. Above all, we are not surprised that this self-contained child becomes a self-contained adult who values independence, autonomy, and privacy more than almost everything else.

Out of pain has come enormous adult strength. The young Kinsey established an important lifelong pattern of behavior, one that characterizes much of her later success both as a human being and as a detective. She learned to find the solution within the problem itself. Plus, she learned to find the solution herself, without turning to others for solace or assistance. These strengths, though, have come at a high price, and they come freighted with a sense of vulnerability and self-doubt that many readers see increasing in the later novels.

The outside world into which the child finally emerged was the cold of her aunt's trailer and the terrors of kindergarten (J 133-134). (Kinsey often says they lived in trailers all the time, but in Evidence, she says she grew up in a tiny stucco bungalow [66], one of the few inconsistencies in the series -- but even that reference stresses the small size.) She and her aunt had a relationship that "entailed more theory than affection" (H 16). There was clearly mutual respect, trust, and commitment, but not much of the cuddling or playfulness that most small children need. Kinsey says, "I was raised by a no-nonsense aunt who had done her best, who had loved me deeply, but with a matter-of-factness that had failed to nourish some part of me" (C 65).

Two of the more painful stories of life with her aunt occur in a conversation with Robert Dietz in "G" Is for Gumshoe and in her musings about her remodeled apartment in "H" Is for Homicide. When Dietz says he knows nothing about her, Kinsey's response is predictably couched in terms of the accident, as though the only way to know her is to know her loss. "I was raised by my mother's sister. My folks were killed in an accident and I went to live with her when I was five. This is the first thing she ever said to me. . . 'Rule number one, Kinsey ... rule number one . . .' -- and here she pointed her finger right up in my face -- No sniveling'" (G 95, emphasis added).

Dietz replies, "Jesus," to which Kinsey responds, "It wasn't so bad. I'm only slightly warped" (G 95). Kinsey may defend her aunt, but it still sounds pretty bad. Telling a child who has lost both parents and been trapped inside the car with their bodies for six hours not to cry -- indeed, to trivialize such grief by calling it "sniveling" -- is extremely tough. No depth of grief felt by Aunt Virginia can justify the impact on the newly orphaned Kinsey of being greeted by this directive and its accompaniment -- a forefinger wagged in her face.

Later, in Homicide, Kinsey tells the reader why she loves her apartment, newly remodeled by her landlord especially for her, and why she feels at home and secure for the first time in her life. She recalls going to live with her aunt: "Without ever actually saying so, she conveyed the impression that I was there on approval, like a mattress, subject to return if the lumps didn't smooth out. To give her credit, her notions of child raising, if eccentric, were sound, and what she taught me in the way of worldly truths has served me well. Still, for most of my life, I've felt like an intruder and a transient, merely marking time until I was asked to move on" (16-17). (We note with interest that Kinsey has lived most of her life in a series of trailer parks, and now, during the novels, she lives in an apartment converted from garage space, both settings associated with travel and impermanence.)

And what are these "worldly truths" imparted to Kinsey by her aunt? Some of them relate to the minutiae of daily life. There is a whole cadre of social no-nos: no pierced ears, no chewing gum in public, no red nail polish, no dingy bra straps (H 208), and no beauty care except for "an occasional swipe of cold cream" (F 12). And there are household hints galore: "Spring clean every three months.... Beat all the throw rugs. Line-dry the sheets" (I 125). Always use an upright vacuum cleaner, rather than a "useless" canister (J 105). The fact that Kinsey, in times of stress, will clean her apartment ("like Cinderella on uppers") is a direct consequence of her aunt's focus on cleanliness (I 207).

There were no cooking lessons, however, because cooking is boring, and it only encourages the cook to become fat. (Virginia's name for Kinsey' s home ec class was "Home Ick," D 102) The only food Kinsey mentions Aunt Gin making is sticky buns, which she remembers with fondness (O 14). Instead, Kinsey's aunt taught her to knit at the age of six (O 113) and to crochet (B 149), allegedly in order to learn "patience and an eye for detail" (D 102), but Kinsey now suspects both were intended "to distract me in the early evening hours" (O 113). Virginia also taught her to shoot a pistol, so that she might learn safety, accuracy, and good hand-eye coordination (D 102). Her aunt considered reading, exercise, and good dental care to be essential, but since she believed that "two out of three illnesses would cure themselves.... Doctors could generally be ignored except in case of accident" (D 102).

Kinsey has a sense of having missed something important while she was growing up. In "C" Is for Corpse, Bobby Callahan tells Kinsey about the days following his own near-fatal car crash, when his mother virtually willed him back to life, staying at his bedside twenty-four hours a day and telling him he could not leave them. Kinsey thinks, "Jesus, what must it be like to have a mother who could love you that way?" This plaintive question is immediately followed by Kinsey's recall of her parents' deaths. This reminder of what she has missed elicits such "envy" for Bobby's having been the object of "a love of such magnitude" that her eyes well up with tears (64-65).

Tiny things may spark a fleeting sense of loss for Kinsey. Inside Jorden's, a specialty kitchen shop, Kinsey observes "The air smelled of chocolate and made me wish I had a mother," who, unlike her aunt, presumably would cook (D 83). The kindness of a woman physician makes tears come to Kinsey's eyes because it prompts a memory of her own mother's compassion when Kinsey had a raw throat from a tonsillectomy at the age of four (E 133). Another "one of the few concrete memories" Kinsey has of her mother is also a picture of maternal comfort during illness. For childhood colds, she remembers her mother rubbing her chest "with Vicks VapoRub, then covering it with a square of pink rose-sprigged flannel, secured to my pajama top with safety pins" (J 41).

As an adult, Kinsey tries to mother herself in the same way. She relishes the luxury of staying home with a cold, wrapped in a quilt, reading a book, and having a legitimate, excuse to take "NyQuil in fully authorized nightly doses" (J 36). She keeps a "flannel nightie" just to wear when she's sick (J 37). In addition, she knows where to go to get "mothering" from someone else. When Kinsey is distraught because her car has been broken into and her aunt's semiautomatic stolen, the first thing she does is go to Rosie's Tavern.

Ensconced in her favorite booth near the back, Kinsey opens the conversation with Rosie with a bald announcement of all of her bad news of the day. Like a beneficently dictatorial mother, Rosie tells her in elaborate detail exactly what she will eat for dinner, ending with a special dessert "If you're good and clean up your plate." She concludes her maternal diatribe with, "If you had a good man in your life, this would never happen to you and that's all I'm gonna say." Kinsey's response is one of pure joy. She says, "I laughed for the first time in days" (D 104). The independent, grown-up Kinsey may not have any intention of putting a man in her life, but when she's hurting, she goes to the place where she knows she will be "mothered" shamelessly -- even to the point of being told to eat her vegetables.

Kinsey is very aware of Rosie's place in her life. Just after she has solved the case and is heartsick over what she has discovered in "E" Is for Evidence, she plans to persuade Rosie to let her into the tavern early: "I needed a heavy Hungarian dinner, a glass of white wine, and someone to fuss at me like a mother" (217).

Interestingly, Kinsey appears to let a number of women, usually either older or bigger than she, "fuss at" her for some perceived inadequacy, usually involving her appearance. After Rosie, the most frequent scold in the early novels is Vera Lipton, Kinsey's good friend and a claims adjuster at California Fidelity Insurance. Vera is always badgering her about her poor fashion sense and even lends her a dressy black silk jumpsuit and does her makeup for the retirement dinner in "G" Is for Gumshoe. Ida Ruth, Kingman and Ives' secretary, berates her about her failure to take vitamin C for her cold and for missing a local tourist attraction when she went to Mexico (J 44). Lyda Case wants to do a complete makeover (E 96). Danielle Rivers, a prostitute, thinks her hair is so bad that she gives Kinsey a haircut (K 167-170). Bibianna Diaz does a quick makeover of Kinsey's hair and dress in the rest room at the Meat Locker (H 55-56). Olive Kohler is so afraid Kinsey won't have an appropriate dress for her New Year's Eve party that she gives her one from her own closet (E 108).

Now, let's be realistic. Kinsey is an intelligent, grown woman, fully capable of learning about makeup and planning her own wardrobe, but she does not choose to do so. She also does not seem to mind all this motherly fussing over her. We can conclude that there must be something highly satisfying about all the attention, or Kinsey would not allow it to happen over and over. The implication that Kinsey is filling in the gaps from her childhood is strong.

Parental support is composed of more than food and fussing, of course, and to be fair to Aunt Virginia, what Kinsey gained from her guidance is a set of values far more important than dress codes and eating habits. The most detailed description of her aunt's core values and beliefs is given in "D" Is for Deadbeat when Kinsey discovers that her aunt's "no-brand semiautomatic" (B 149) has been stolen. She is extremely upset because she treasures the pistol as Aunt Virginia's "legacy, representing the odd bond between us" (D 101). Apparently neither she nor her aunt owned much in the way of material things, and this was the only physical legacy she still has from her aunt, whom she loved deeply whether or not either of them said so very often. (Kinsey is dismayed to learn that the storage space scavenger in Outlaw has already sold the big wooden salad bowl and wooden rolling pin from her Aunt Virginia, items she regrets leaving behind in her rush to get out of her first marriage. Kinsey wishes she could have had them returned to her, but she says, "I had to let that one go; no point in longing for what had already been disposed of" 14).

The loss of the gun reminds her of everything she misses about Aunt Virginia, who died ten years earlier, when Kinsey was twenty-two. She recalls the "dozens of ... precepts" her aunt taught her. Some of them now seem amusing to her, but the most important lesson was one Kinsey took very seriously. It was about the value of earning one's own money. "Rule Number One [presumably more than the prohibition against sniveling], first and foremost, above and beyond all else, was financial independence. A woman should never, never, never be financially dependent on anyone, especially a man, because the minute you were dependent, you could be abused. Financially dependent persons (the young, the old, the indigent) were inevitably treated badly and had no recourse. A woman should always have recourse. My aunt believed that every woman should develop marketable skills, and the more money she was paid for them the better. Any feminine pursuit that did not have as its ultimate goal increased self-sufficiency could be disregarded" (D 102).

The need for financial independence and marketable skills is a lesson Kinsey still lives by. (This lesson will gain new meaning when we learn in "J" Is for Judgment about the Kinsey family wealth, against which Virginia and Rita Kinsey turned their backs  for the sake of their own independence. Virginia knew intimately the power over others that money gives to its possessor.) Throughout the series, Kinsey maintains a successful one-person PI. agency. She remains financially solvent and careful, always managing her career and her money to suit herself.

Kinsey also expanded the concept of independence beyond the financial to include personal, or emotional, independence. She chooses to remain single and carefully monitors how close she will allow anyone to come. Certainly, the five-year-old who crawled inside a cardboard box and created her own world already had a streak of self-sufficiency, but this innate tendency was greatly enhanced by Aunt Virginia's passion for financial independence. The child's spark was fanned by her aunt into the fire that is the adult Kinsey.

Readers typically applaud Aunt Virginia's encouragement of financial autonomy and career goals for women, but they may be less comfortable with Kinsey's ambivalent attitude toward her aunt's distaste for makeup, fashion, and a whole range of "feminine" behaviors. If "increased self-sufficiency" is the goal for all activities, then, according to her aunt, " 'How to Get Your Man' didn't even, appear on the list" (D 102). Apparently these lessons, too, were absorbed well. Kinsey typically wears no makeup beyond a touch of lipstick or some perfume (especially in the earlier novels), dresses comfortably in turtleneck sweaters and jeans, and owns only one "all-purpose dress" (E 39, 227, and lots of other places). She is uncomfortable in cocktail party settings and she seems totally clueless about the techniques of flirting.

These habits of dress and manner reflect deliberate choices by Kinsey, but she does not always seem happy with her ignorance about style and her lack of stereotypical feminine graces. "Of course, I was dressed wrong," she berates herself in the mirror when she misjudges and wears casual clothes to meet Ash and her mother at the wealthy Woods' home (E 66). Earlier, meeting Ash for lunch at the Edgewater Hotel, she had dressed up in her one dress -- as a good detective, she always tries to disguise herself to blend into her setting -- but Ash had surprised her by showing up in "an outfit suitable for bagging game." This time she thought she had it right by dressing down, but, to her dismay, she's gotten it wrong again. She continues to scold herself: "I never could guess right when it came to clothes" (E 66). She is irritated by her misjudgment, and she blames the fact that she has "no class" on her upbringing by an aunt whose "notion of 'day-core' was a pink plastic flamingo standing on one foot".

A similar, but funnier, scene occurs in "H" Is for Homicide, when Kinsey goes to the Meat Locker to try to meet Bibianna Diaz. She wears what she thinks will be an appropriate disguise for this raunchy night spot: a rather outlandish outfit created around tight ankle-length black pants, lace-edged white socks, and a hair style that reminds her of a water spout. She finishes off the look with "gaudy red lipstick" and big dangling earrings with red stones (48). She's quite pleased with her creation of Kinsey-as-vamp until she shares the mirror in the women's room with Bibianna, whose sexy dress and manner have all the guys panting after her. Bibianna looks gravely at Kinsey's reflection and says: "' I hope you don't mind my saying this, but that hair and the getup are completely wrong.' 'They are?' I looked down at myself, a feeling of despair washing over me. What is it about me that invites this kind of comment? Here I think of myself as a kick-ass private eye when other people apparently see me as a waif in need of mothering" (55).

Bibianna then redoes her hair, tells her to "dump the earrings," and does "some kind of tricky fold" thing with a hot pink scarf from her purse and ties it around Kinsey's neck, giving an instant boost to her color (55-56). Kinsey makes fun of all the fuss and calls Bibianna's hair mousse "some kind of bottled hair snot." But when she looks in the mirror, to her surprise, she actually likes the results. She would never have known to add a pink scarf to improve her coloring, but she can see that it does. "How do women know these things? More important, how come I don't?" (55).

She answers her own question in a number of scenes with something along the lines of her lament before the Kohlers' party in "E" Is for Evidence: "I'd never had a role model for this female stuff... I'd been raised by a maiden aunt, no expert herself at things feminine. I'd spent the days of my childhood with cap guns and books, learning self-sufficiency" (126).

Kinsey is a complex and contradictory character. She is strong and self-reliant and she has no intention of allowing concern for trivial things like clothing and makeup to run her life. She strongly agrees with her aunt's set of priorities. She does not define herself in relationship to a man in her life. She is her own person. She is a "kick-ass private eye." The dominant part of her character is amused by, and scornful of, the great value other people foolishly place on fashion and makeup, and she takes pride in her own disdain for dress and looks. At the same time, when Kinsey laughs about her social gaucheries, taking pleasure in the superficiality of those who might notice her social gaffes, we still sense a twinge of genuine embarrassment behind the laughter.

Grafton gives us what literary critics call "a well-rounded character" in Kinsey; that is, she is capable of surprising us. She has richness, complexity, and contradictions. Just when we think we can pigeonhole her as a tough P.I. with a no-nonsense attitude toward fashion and looks, we see a sense of vulnerability about her appearance. In a second twist, then, Kinsey is not consistent even about that vulnerability. It is both a point of pride and a source of discomfort.

In other words, Grafton has created a very human Kinsey with whom readers can easily identify. Who among us has not felt gauche and awkward at some social event? Kinsey simultaneously treasures what her aunt taught her ("a solid set of values," E 126) and laments what her aunt did not teach her ("I'm a social oaf," E 126). "My aunt, for all her failings, was a perfect guardian for me.... brazen, remote, eccentric, independent" (D 129, emphasis added). If the combination of love, appreciation, and criticism sounds familiar to readers, it's probably because we ourselves have said something similar about our parent-figures more than once in our own lives.  | September 2000


Copyright © 2000 Natalie Hevener Kaufman & Carol McGinnis


Natalie Hevener Kaufman and Carol McGinnis Kay are on the faculty at the University of South Carolina at Columbia. Kaufman is a legal scholar and Kay specializes in Shakespeare, and both have run panels on women and detective fiction for Popular Culture Association. "G" Is for Grafton won the 1998 Edgar award for the Best Biographical Work.