S is for success
Sue Grafton masters the ABCs of bestsellers
By Shana McNally
IN THE EARLY 1980s,
Sue Grafton was a Hollywood television writer by
day. By night she would
lie in bed dreaming of ways
to do in her ex-husband,
with whom she was going
through a long, painful
divorce. Since she figured
she would most likely be
caught, she decided to
write the plots in book
form instead and get paid
Twenty-one books later,
the author’s alphabet mur-der-mystery series is published in 28 countries and
26 languages, beginning with her first, A is for Alibi,
through her latest installment, U is for Undertow.
The series features Kinsey Millhone, a Southern
California private investigator based somewhat on
Grafton herself, “only younger, smarter and thinner,” or who she might have been had she not married and had children young, Grafton says.
“I don’t want her to be a role model,” she adds.
“I want her flawed and inconsistent like the rest of
us. She’s just a small-town gumshoe.”
In Undertow, the nature-hating, fast-food-lov-ing Kinsey investigates the 1967 disappearance of a
little girl. As with her other books, Grafton came up
with six storyline ideas and used the one that worked
out the best. She starts with the subject and the strategy—who hires Kinsey and for what.
“I try to come up with a case that looks simple
COSTCO HAS 50 signed copies of Sue
Grafton’s U is for Undertow to give away.
For a chance to win, send an e-mail to
firstname.lastname@example.org, with “Sue Grafton”
in the subject line. Or print your name,
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Grafton, The Costco Connection, P.O. Box
34088, Seattle, WA 98124-1088.
Signed book giveaway
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the time of entry. One entry per household. Entries must be received by
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Employees of Costco or Penguin Group and their families are not eligible.
on the surface but gets more complicated as
it goes,” Grafton tells The Connection from
her home in Montecito, California. “I let the
story tell me what it needs instead of imposing my will on the narrative.”
THE GREAT THING about
a series—be it books, film
or television—is how the
characters start to feel like
old friends. After spending
21 books with Kinsey
Millhone, the lead in Sue
Grafton’s Alphabet series,
I almost feel as if she’s a
member of my family.
In this case Grafton was interested in
exploring both false memory syndrome and
the concept of a story that goes back and
forth in time, quite a trick considering all of
her books are set in the late 1980s.
“Culture and technology have advanced
so rapidly that’s it’s hard to remember how
innocent those times were, but I try to be as
accurate as possible,” says the three-time
recipient of the Shamus Award, given by the
Private Eye Writers of America.
Another reason Grafton sticks to the late ’80s is
because she gently ages her main character. If
Kinsey aged one year for each book she would be
too old to do her job by the end of the series, so
instead she ages one year every couple of books.
This also allows Kinsey, now 37, to handle cases
with old-fashioned problem solving and wits
instead of technology.
Grafton maintains her routine of a quick morning walk, sitting down to write at 8, taking a break
for lunch and working again until 3. She has several
nonnegotiable rules: She reads every chapter 10
times in a row without changing a word before
moving on, and she maintains her vow to not repeat
anything in the series by keeping elaborate charts of
killer profiles, victims, motives, etc.
Kinsey, a private investigator, is flawlessly fleshed
out. As she tries to solve a
murder in the latest novel,
U is for Undertow, her
allowing the reader to, if not
like her, at least recognize
the qualities that make her
human. Not only do I adore
Grafton as a person, but as
a writer she successfully
keeps the mysteries fresh
in each novel.
Sue Grafton’s U is for
Undertow is available in
most Costco warehouses
and at Costco.com.
“My job as an author is to entertain, to tell a little
yarn,” she says. “I try to answer questions I’m interested in, like ‘What makes someone cross the line?’ ”
For more book picks,
see page 33.
Pennie Clark IannicielloCostco Book Buyer
The daughter of C. W. Grafton, an attorney who
wrote well-received mysteries on the side, Grafton
also dabbled in the medical field and wrote seven
other books before starting this series.
Story structure, action scenes and dialogue
were skills Grafton honed in her 15-year television-and movie-writing career. She left Tinsel Town
after G is for Gumshoe, but despite her background she is determined to never see Kinsey
in a movie.
Grafton, 69, figures at the rate she’s
going—one book every two years—
she’ll be 80 by the final book, Z is for
Zero, and ready to enjoy playtime in
the form of eating good food, knitting and spending time with her current husband, philosophy lecturer Steve
Humphrey; her three children; and her
four grandchildren, including one named