I’m not an avid mystery reader. I tend to read a range of things: literary fiction, juvenile books, fantasy, poetry, the occasional non-fiction tome. I do like mysteries and I pick them up on occasion. If truth be told, I’ve read the entire mystery series of only one author—Sue Grafton.
I finished Y a few months back and immediately began to anticipate Z. I had a lot of questions about Z. How would Ms. Grafton wrap things up? Would Kinsey take an early retirement and move to an exotic locale? (She seemed too matter-of-fact for that.) Would her readers have to suffer through the deaths of Henry and the sibs (Grafton swore she’d never do this.) Would Kinsey finally find the right guy? (I doubted it.) Would she take a break, only to be dragged into another dubious situation requiring her expertise? (A strong possibility, I thought.) I began looking forward to Z, already hating the fact that I had another two or three years to wait. I was convinced it would be a zinger. I was guessing I wouldn’t guess exactly what Sue Grafton would do with her much-anticipated ending.
I began reading her alphabet series around 1990 (I was younger than Kinsey then). I quickly caught up to H or I, and a new routine began. As soon as the latest letter was released, I was on it. All sorts of things happened to me in-between letters, but I was always happy to resume Kinsey’s story. This steady – dependable – release of installments became something to anticipate—like the new school year or that first summer road trip. I’d go into Kinsey’s world for a few days or weeks and find new resolve. Kinsey reassured me. She helped me remember how a strong-minded woman can solve problems, make things happen, live a remarkable life.
The end of waiting for that next letter—looming anyway with the thought of Z—coincides with big changes in my own life. Old touchstones are dissolving on me. I can’t help but feel I’m entering a new era on a personal level—and in the global sense. The world feels, well… slippery. At the moment, I’m newly retired from higher education, and I’m not exactly sure where to put my energies. I’m also a writer (not really in Grafton’s vein) who does not expect to retire any time soon, though I’m not sure what I have to say is relevant any longer. There’s so much to sort through and make sense of—online and off. Everyone’s a writer. Everyone’s journalist. It’s hard to imagine my work surfacing, in any significant way, through all the nattering that’s going on. That said, there is certainly no shortage of problems to pick apart.
I won’t try to draw parallels between Kinsey’s life and my own (though there are a few). I will note, I admire the way Grafton decided to break the mold when she created her famed character. She gave us a heroine who grapples with her times, not to mention a crime-ridden world—a woman who doesn’t think it’s strange that she is the action figure. Kinsey finds the courage to be her own person in the face of “how it has always been done.”
My favorite Kinsey character trait is her unwillingness to be cowed by fashion trends. She gravitates toward comfort, eschewing the sort of wardrobe that would have helped her gain entrance into the yuppie world. Remember, the word yuppie was being tossed about during the eighties, the decade during which Grafton’s alphabet series takes place. The fight for comfortable apparel for busy females was a “discussion” in those days, one Jockey took advantage of when they created their briefs for women. Though Kinsey is not one to stick in a box, PC or otherwise. She probably prefers sexy underwear. Kinsey is far being a yuppie with her studio apartment and VW bug. She makes use of community resources to do her work, returning to the library frequently to check the reverse directory in search of addresses. She hunts for significant public records printed on good old-fashioned paper. She keeps track of her hunches on index cards, moving them about before her, hoping answers will surface.
Grafton was quick to discuss her decision to let Kinsey age slowly, thereby keeping her in a pre-Internet world. I was happy to meet with the private investigator there. This wasn’t because I had so much nostalgia for the eighties. It was Kinsey’s authenticity that mattered. What drew me to her all those years ago had nothing to do with how well she might have kept up with technology (I’m sure she would have done a credible job). It was her take on the world that got me. She had her predispositions. She wasn’t always kind. She lived her own mores, that were far from perfect, though pretty sound. She was funny and self-deprecating, and she managed to get the job done! During those moments when I thought I’d never get out of some pedestrian bind, Kinsey’s brand of perseverance, often woven with moments of comfort-seeking, became a reassuring yardstick.
The alphabet series celebrates a remarkable person over new gizmos and slick scenes that are all action and no humanity. Readers become privileged to know Kinsey on the inside, not just her ability to knock a criminal flat. I loved spending time with this character, all of the quirky details that define her. Kinsey has been compelled to introduce me to her world—Santa Teresa and her ready-made family (Henry, the sibs, Rosie, and an occasional beau). And yes, it has been thrilling to watch her go after suspects. After all, action and suspense go hand in hand with what she chose to do in life.
I understand Sue Grafton was struggling to find the story of Z is for Zero as she undergoing cancer treatment. The book now remains an intention. I probably shouldn’t try speculate about Z, but I’m wondering if she would have turned a mudslide into a plot element for this final chapter (in Kinsey’s time and place, of course). Sue Grafton experienced her last weeks with the Thomas Fire raging. That must have been an eerie backdrop for anyone going through the dying process. While she did bring today’s increasing wildfire threat into her series, perhaps she would have expanded on the theme if she’d lived to survive this disaster. And the mudslides in Montecito following California’s largest fire to-date have been nothing short of shocking. I have no doubt Kinsey – wherever she ended up in her post-alphabet life – would have felt that deeply. Then she would have rolled up her sleeves and headed for Montebello.