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Remembering 'Alphabet Series' Author Sue Grafton, And Her Alter Ego Protagonist

RAY SUAREZ, HOST:

And now we're going to remember someone who died this week, crime novelist Sue Grafton. She was famous for her "Alphabet Mystery" series with titles like "A Is For Alibi" and "B Is For Burglar." Grafton had cancer and died Thursday at age 77. NPR's Chris Benderev has this remembrance.

CHRIS BENDEREV, BYLINE: Like the author of any beloved series, Sue Grafton is best known for her recurring protagonist, in this case, Kinsey Millhone. She's the private eye in Grafton's Alphabet series, which began in 1982. Lisa Scottoline, a best-selling mystery writer herself, says, of course, noir had been around for decades at that point, but the genre had always been about complicated, competent male detectives.

LISA SCOTTOLINE: What is heroism? What is a man? That's really the question those books were sort of answering. But the bottom line is the women in those novels were the girl. They were minor characters. And when Sue Grafton came along, she created a female gumshoe, not an amateur sleuth, a P.I. that you go to for help, and she's a woman.

BENDEREV: Grafton's Kinsey Millhone was different in other ways, too. She was 32, twice divorced and single with no kids. She ate peanut butter and pickle sandwiches. She cursed, and she was darkly funny. As for Grafton's life, she was born in Louisville, Ky., in 1940. Her dad was a lawyer who wrote crime fiction to stave off boredom.

Grafton's early attempts at writing novels went poorly though, so she took up screenwriting for a while. But eventually she was pulled back to crime fiction. She told Fresh Air in 1989 that her first novel was inspired during an ugly divorce.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SUE GRAFTON: I used to lie awake at night and think of ways to kill the man. However, because I am such a law abiding little bun, I decided that the next best thing would be to take the murder, put it in a book and get paid for it. And in essence, I have launched an entire new career out of mere homicidal rage.

BENDEREV: The books were a hit. And they arrived prolifically - "B Is For Burglar," "J is for judgment," "P is for Peril." Here's Grafton on All Things Considered earlier this year talking about her character, Kinsey Millhone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GRAFTON: She is actually my alter ego. She is the person I might have been had I not married young and had children, except she will always be braver. I am really appalled by violence and avoid it all costs.

BENDEREV: Grafted never sold the film rights to her books. And, as she said in a magazine interview, she made her kids swear to never do so either or else, quote, "I will come back from the grave, which they know I can do." Earlier this year, she released "Y Is For Yesterday." And she said in that NPR interview that she was looking forward to finally finishing the series.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GRAFTON: The last 38 years, I've known exactly what I'm doing next. And this is a little moment of freedom if I can come up with a storyline for "Z Is For Zero," which remains to be seen.

BENDEREV: In a message on Facebook, Friday, her daughter said Grafton would also never allow ghostwriting. So, quote, "as far as we in the family are concerned, the alphabet now ends at Y." Chris Benderev, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR'S "TIME FOR SPACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.