Book review: Kinsey and Me by Sue Grafton

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Sue Grafton is an international bestselling crime writer based near Los Angeles. She created private detective Kinsey Millhone three decades ago in a series which uses the alphabet in its titles so the reader starts with A is for Alibi and can work through to V is for Vengeance.

Kinsey and Me by Sue Grafton

Mantle, 286pp, £16.99

With Kinsey and Me, Grafton seems to have been clearing out her desk. The book starts with an astute preface in which she analyses the nature of mystery short stories. Then there are nine short stories featuring Kinsey followed by an essay about what makes a private investigator, or indeed, detective novels so popular.

Then the reader is treated to 13 brief notes which read like diary entries from her teenage years and early twenties. They were written in the 1960s and only published privately for friends and family by her husband some years ago. They are now being made available more widely. In these, she calls herself Kit Blue.

The comments express the agony of a child with two alcoholic parents who brought herself up from age five. Her father, a lawyer and crime writer, managed his alcoholism but her mother was unable to cope, made a number of suicide attempts and eventually died of cancer. Grafton’s role was to be a mother to her mother. Her wish now is that “life could be edited as deftly as prose”.

Grafton is baring her soul and trying to explain why she was so disturbed in her marriages and relationships with family and friends following her mother’s death. The earlier decision to make these available to family and friends was the right one. They lie uncomfortably with the first section of the book and are of no real interest to the reader. They are perhaps an indication of her “egotistical streak that sometimes overrides common sense”.

The detection short stories are of an entirely different kind though also written between 1986 and 1991. As a result, the heroine is always looking for a telephone kiosk in the absence of mobiles. Each is the basic storyline of what could have been extended into a book with extra description and sub-plots.

They are a pleasant enough read but suffer from their brevity. This private eye doesn’t do failure and wins each case.

As interesting as any of the fictional material is Grafton’s thoughts on detective writing contained in the preface and in a transitional comment between the short stories and her personal essays.

She asserts that “The hard-boiled private eye novel is still the classic struggle between good and evil played out against the backdrop of our social interactions”. Or maybe it just appeals because it is a good read.

Now that Grafton has swept the contents of her desk into this ill-matched collection, it is to be hoped that she returns to completing her Kinsey alphabet novels right through to Z.