Readers of Sue Grafton’s Alphabet Series know that her heroine, Kinsey Millhone, was orphaned at the age of five and raised by her Aunt Gin, who died when Kinsey was in her twenties. So, at least at the start of the series, Kinsey has no family. (Some cousins turn up in later books.)
One of the most endearing features of Grafton’s novels is the way Kinsey knits together her own family with her octogenarian landlord, Henry Pitts, and her neighborhood Hungarian restauranteur Rosie, and various other local characters. Love is where you find it.
So Kinsey, who has no family, is often faced with unpleasant and sometimes murderous situations that arise from toxic family dynamics. Family life is often idealized in American popular culture in a saccharine, treacly kind of way, and I’ve always admired Graton for pointing out that it often has a downside.
This naturally begs the question: What kind of family life did Sue Grafton have? The answer can be found tucked away at the end of a book called ‘Kinsey and Me’, which is a collection of Kinsey Millhone short stories, followed by an essay on mystery novels, followed by a series of autobiographical stories.
It’s as if Grafton is downplaying these stories because she’s tough, like Kinsey, and she doesn’t want to sound self-pitying.
Just as Kinsey was orphaned at the age of five, Sue was left parentless at the same age, when her parents started drinking heavily.
“One of the benefits of growing up as the child of two alcoholics was my lack of supervision. Every morning my father downed two jiggers of whiskey and went to the office,” she writes. “My mother, similarly fortified, went to sleep on the couch. From the age of five onward, I was left to raise myself, which I did as well as I could, having had no formal training in parenthood.”
In one story, a little girl named Kit is sitting watching her mother pass out on the couch, hating her “with a kind of resignation, patience, and servitude.”
“Kit had seen other mothers in the world.She had seen women who were sober all day long, bright-eyed and talkative, who dressed up in high-heel shoes and went to country clubs, who cleaned their houses, cooked meals, drank coffee in the afternoons and laughed, women who joined the PTA and took their daughters to department stores to buy them bras. Kit’s mother could hardly go anywhere.”
Her father was no help at all: “When life seemed unbearable, my father, to comfort me, would sit on the edge of my bed and recount in patient detail the occasion when the family doctor had told him he’d have to choose between her and us and he’d chosen her because she was weak and needed him and we were strong and could survive.”
“In such moments, at the ages of eight and ten and twelve, I would reassure him so he wouldn’t feel guilty at having left us to such a fate. My father was perfect. It was only later that I dared experience the rage I felt for him.”
Imagine a father saying something like that to a child. Imagine a doctor saying something like that to a parent.
This book has lots of other interesting information about the creation of Kinsey Millhone, and the short stories are pretty good, too. There’s one about a women’s mystery book club where the members collude to bump off each others’ husbands!