One very terrible summer, I was jobless, in the wake of a breakup, and looking at the wrong side of thirty-five. “I don’t know what to do with myself,” I told a librarian friend. “Read the Kinsey Millhone mysteries,” she said. “They’re bestsellers for a reason and there’s a ton of them.”
By the summer’s end, lone-wolf private detective Kinsey had become my first fictional bestie since I’d ostensibly grown out of rereading Harriet the Spy. Grumpy, idiosyncratic, and eminently decent, the subject of Sue Grafton’s bestselling alphabet series is the sort of tough-guy tomboy rarely found outside of children’s literature, to all of our detriment. Like the love child of Mickey Spillane and Ramona Quimby, Kinsey suffers no fools and is only partially domesticated. Orphaned young, divorced twice, and child-free, she’s a former cop who prefers pickle and peanut butter sandwiches over salads, lifts free weights, cuts her own hair with nail scissors, and owns only one dress – a run-of-the-mill black number for when she can’t wear her no-frills ensemble. She lives with Ed, a Japanese bobtail cat, in a garage apartment owned by her best friend Henry, an eighty-eight-year-old retired baker who designs crossword puzzles, and she regularly swills cheap, white wine and frightening goulash at the local tavern with a handful of cops whom she sometimes dates and often consults in the delightfully lo-fi world of 1980s Santa Teresa, a fictionalized Southern California town resembling Santa Barbara, where Grafton lives part-time.
Beginning with 1982’s A Is for Alibi, each novel in the series weaves Kinsey’s cases with developments in her personal life; aging one year every two and a half books, she is thirty-nine in 1989 in Y Is for Yesterday, the just-released twenty-fifth book in the series. Keeping the series in the Affluent Eighties means Kinsey takes notes on index cards, types reports on a Smith-Corona, interviews subjects in person, and, most happily, can play the rebel simply by leading a Spartan lifestyle among all those yuppies. This is convenient because, though she resists social convention and occasionally fibs, Kinsey takes pride in her code of ethics and keeps a tight ship in her home, business, and physicality. Always a study in incongruities, this does not stop her from talking trash in a constantly running inner monologue, especially about other women’s garb: “She wore a pale-yellow sweater about the hue of certain urine samples I’ve seen where the prognosis isn’t keen.” Is she an anti-feminist? Kinsey is a heterosexual woman who rejects most aspects of traditional femininity, has few female friends, but is most definitely not a woman hater. This makes her an unusual character in contemporary fiction and in life, though she’s hardly the hot topic she should be in cultural criticism. But does this also make her a role model?
That’s harder to answer, even if you’re asking Grafton herself. “It didn’t dawn on me that there were so few female private eyes,” she’s said, “But since my only area of experience was being a woman … I just created an alter ego and got to funnel all my bad language and irreverent thoughts into her …. Now I look like a hero, when in fact I was just being sassy.”
“Just being sassy” could be Kinsey’s motto, but the books never lapse into glibness. Instead, they lope along like a lady who doesn’t care what she looks like but still looks good. The whodunits are never impossible to solve, but each one packs a punch with crisp, clever prose and red-herring revelations. And while some complain the plots aren’t gritty enough, I think they balance Kinsey’s rough background – she harbors class resentment even as her bank account expands – with a core kindness that sees more of the light of day with each installment in the series. In short, Ms. Millhone is excellent company, a clear-hearted curmudgeon whose stories seem written right out of the side of Grafton’s mouth. Because of this, I love listening to the books as I walk and drive as much as I love reading them on page. Judy Kaye’s narration (she narrates most of the audiobooks, including Y) is exactly like the Kinsey in my head, which makes me fantasize about how satisfying an adaptation could be as well.
So will we ever get an on-screen version of Kinsey? Grafton, who worked as a TV writer for fifteen years before penning her first mystery, has refused to sell the series’ movie rights. “I know how … the decisions are made,” she has said. “It’s like being picked up in a bar: If you really believe when the guy tells you you’re beautiful, you’re going to be in for a big surprise.”
Close your eyes, and she sounds just like my pal Kinsey.