Book review: Kinsey and Me: Stories by Sue Grafton

For 30 years, millions of adoring fans have been enthralled by Sue Grafton’s iconic, alphabetical Kinsey Millhone mysteries, some completely unaware that the smart-talking private investigator is the author’s own dark alter-ego.

Through the creation of Kinsey, one of America’s most popular female writers has been empowered to tell home truths – ‘sometimes bitter, sometimes amusing’ – and to look at the world with a ‘mean’ eye, exploring the shadowy side of human nature.

But if Kinsey is Grafton’s alter-ego, another, more psychologically complex and troubled character called Kit Blue, devised in the decade after the death of the author’s mother, is unequivocally a heart-searching portrait of the young Sue.

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To mark the anniversary of A is for Alibi, the first Kinsey Millhone book, and while we await the W, X, Y and Z thrillers, Grafton has given us Kinsey and Me, an intriguing collection of short stories which reveal the fictional detective’s origins, and the author’s own turbulent childhood with two alcoholic parents.

A book of two halves, split by a fascinating entr’acte in which Grafton briefly examines the detective novel genre from Raymond Chandler to the ‘random, pointless and pervasive’ violence of the modern age, Kinsey and Me is essentially an eloquent and cathartic collection of short stories and autobiographical musings.

These nine Kinsey Millhone tales, all firmly rooted in the 1980s, are each a gem of detection and, coupled with the Kit Blue stories about Grafton’s relationship with her dysfunctional parents, reveal just how much Kinsey is a Freudian distillation of her creator’s past.

Free of parental discipline, the young Sue read everything and roamed everywhere. ‘Every morning, my father downed two jiggers of whiskey and went to the office. My mother, similarly fortified, went to sleep on the couch.’

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But the destructive side of such freedom was a glaring parental distance that made her confused, rebellious and anxious, and left an emotional hole in her life. It was a void she filled by marrying at 18 and filling her home with three children.

And so Kinsey Millhone became the person she might have been, a ‘stripped-down’ version of herself, ‘her shadow, her projection,’ a celebration of her own freedom and independence.

Published in the UK for the first time, this powerful, revelatory and emotionally raw collection displays the depth and range of Grafton’s writing and reminds us of her unique talent as a storyteller.

Although lifting the veil on a chaotic and confused period of her life has been painful, Grafton knows that she cannot edit her life as deftly as prose.

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‘The past is a package deal,’ she observes, ‘and I don’t believe there’s a way to tell some of the truth without telling most. Wisdom comes at a price, and I have paid dearly for mine.’

(Mantle, hardback, £16.99)

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