Sue Grafton died this week.
Bookstop in Houston, the late 1980’s. I hadn’t read mysteries in years, abandoning the genre in the late 1970’s because I was tired of the straight white male point of view, and I wasn’t really aware there was any other, to be honest. I’d always loved the genre; as a kid I read every mystery I could get my hands on, from Mary C. Jane’s books for kids to the Hardy Boys to Nancy Drew to Trixie Belden to The Three Investigators. I read all of Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen. I was a huge fan of the Gothic suspense writers, Phyllis A. Whitney and Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart. I read Charlotte Armstrong. But once that store of writers and their works had been exhausted, I tried reading the male voice…and didn’t care for it. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what the problem was, but they weren’t anything I could enjoy. So I moved away from the genre, reading family sagas and romance novels and science fiction and horror and fantasy; literary fiction and historicals; I’ve always read, and I always will. But I remember stopping at the Book Stop in Houston on pay day–I always went to a bookstore on pay day–and they had a little glossy magazine about new books and writers they always put in the bag. The cover story was an interview with a writer I’d never heard of, and about her new book, D is for Deadbeat. “Wow,” I thought as I read it, “a woman private eye? This sounds interesting.” So on my next pay day I bought the first four books in the series: A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar, C is for Corpse, and D is for Deadbeat. I enjoyed the first two, and they got me thinking about my own plans about being a writer. (I’d given up the idea of being a crime writer–which was my first inclination–when I lost interest in the genre in the late 1970’s.) And then I read C, which to this day remains my favorite of the entire series. I was hooked, sold, and a Grafton fan for life.
And I realized that despite some of the criticism she received (misogynistic at its heart; male critics dismissing Kinsey as “a man in a skirt,’ which was such utter bullshit I couldn’t believe a paid critic could be that ignorant and obtuse–now, of course, I can readily believe it), she had really reinvented the form; by creating a tough, loner female private eye she had forever changed the form and recreated it. And made me realize, hey, if someone can write a series about a female private eye, why can’t I write a series about a gay one?
She made me realize that anything was possible in the form; if you only had the courage to shatter the mold and recast it.
Reading Grafton led me to the other great women writers–Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller–and the ones who came in their wake: Lia Matera, S. J. Rozan, Laura Lippman, Megan Abbott, and so many others. And I grew to love the genre again, and realized that it was what I was meant to do myself.
I had the great good fortune to meet her here in New Orleans at a party given in her honor; I don’t recall why she was in town, I know she came to the Williams Festival one year and I got all of my books signed. But she made time for a conversation for everyone at the party, was gracious and friendly and kind. I don’t remember what we talked about–I was too in awe and tongue-tied to be anything other than a blithering idiot, so I mostly stuck to innocuous party conversation, but I remember she was very kind, had a wonderful warm smile. and an infectious, joyous laugh.
I started buying the books in hardcover around I; I am woefully behind on the series, and now there won’t be another to come; the series ended before she reached Z, only falling one short; if I am not mistaken, I have W, X, and Y left.
Thanks for all the years of great reading, and inspiration.