On Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone Short Stories

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Some books make it to my Self-Doctorate list merely because an author is so widely read that I feel an educated person should have some direct knowledge of their work.  This is why I’m writing today about mystery writer, Sue Grafton.

I’ve long maintained a curiosity about the prolific and successful Grafton, but I’ve delayed reading her work; there just always seemed to be something more urgent to read.  From time to time, I have indeed picked up a book of hers while browsing at bookstores, but I would always set them back down after reading a few pages; I guess what I saw never stimulated me enough to commit to an entire book.

Recently, however, Grafton has come out with a short story collection, Kinsey And Me.  Aha!, I thought; this is my way in.  I can get a feel for how the author writes, how she sets up her mysteries, and how she creates characters for us– all without having to commit to a novel-length story  (Yes, I do have a bit of a commitment problem).

However, after reading several stories about Grafton’s protagonist, private investigator (P.I.) Kinsey Millhone, I was underwhelmed.

Millhone talks tough, much like the old-fashioned male P.I.s from the big days of pulp fiction, but –in the short stories at least– she never completely unfolds into something more than a female version of Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade.  And Millhone is not as exotic or lovable or idiosyncratic or witty or brilliant as some of the great detectives of the genre.  Of course, as someone once said when giving advice on how to be successful:  “You’ve either gotta be first or best.”  As far as I know, Grafton’s Millhone was the first tough-as-nails female P.I. to hit the big time in the mystery genre (the other famous female detectives, such as Miss Marple or the lady from Murder, She Wrote, though tough in their own ways, were not nearly so hard-boiled an egg as Ms. Millhone).

The mysteries in Grafton’s short story collection do the job well-enough; they follow all the “rules” the genre has developed over the decades, and their endings are not terribly predictable (and one should not underestimate how extremely difficult it is to write a mystery as a short story and not be predictable—the author only has so much time to toss-in suspects and misdirection), and I commend Grafton for her talent in this area.  But the plots of the stories too often move forward in a lackluster way, largely taking the form of a series of questions Millhone puts to people, punctuated by a few snide comments from her reminding us how tough-minded she is.  These stories were certainly not written merely as an excuse for the author to talk about the deeper issues of human nature, family dynamics, relationships, or the mysteries of life.

If you love the mystery genre and feel you might appreciate a female approach in a field dominated by males  –and you have some time to kill— then I would not wave you off from Grafton.  However, the bottom line is:  I found her short stories merely adequate.

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