A Is for Alibi by Sue Grafton: a book discussion

January 21, 2009 at 12:15 pm (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

alibi Among the members of the Usual Suspects mystery book group, Pauline is known for the intellectual rigor she brings to the task of  leading a discussion. Her selection for our consideration on Tuesday night of last week was the first of Sue Grafton’s alphabet mysteries, A Is for Alibi. To be honest – I was somewhat dubious about this choice. I had read the book not long after its initial publication (1982) and was not keen on the prospect of revisiting it.

But one so enjoys taking part in discussions led by Pauline! So I did what I often do in situations like this: I got the audio version. I am a great fan of Judy Kaye’s narration of Sue Grafton’s novels. The book on CD that I obtained from the library featured Mary Peiffer as the reader, and she likewise did an excellent  job. At about ten minutes in – I was well and truly hooked!

One of the reasons Pauline chose this particular book is that it would give us a chance to look back to the beginning of this successful and popular series and see to what degree, if any,  Sue Grafton’s protagonist Kinsey Millhone has evolved, both as an investigator and as a person.

Our leader began by going over the author’s background. Sue Grafton was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1940. Her father C.W. Grafton was a lawyer and some time writer of crime fiction.  In her book The Fatal Art of Entertainment (1994), Rosemary Herbert observes the following of Sue Grafton’s early years: “The daughter of intellectual parents who were afflicted with alcoholism, Grafton experienced a rather unsupervised childhood in a ‘classically dysfunctional family’….”

It’s been my observation that such a childhood can be  highly instructive in its own way, if it doesn’t kill you first. While Grafton’s parents were otherwise occupied, she had the free run of their own library and anyone else’s – nothing was declared out of bounds due to her age. She developed a passion for the writers of hardboiled fiction. Her regard for their work has remained constant; she provided the introduction to Tom Nolan’s definitive biography of Ross MacDonald (1999).  rossmacdonald

Sue Grafton married for the first time while still a  student at the University of Louisville. she had two children – a boy and a girl – in quick succession but the marriage did not last.  Divorced in 1962, she remarried the same year. In 1973, by which time she had moved to California,  this second marriage ended, but not before Grafton became embroiled in a bitter custody battle with her soon-to-be ex. As can sometimes happen, a hugely stressful time ultimately gave birth to a hugely successful creation. I’ll let Grafton tell it in her own words, as recorded by interviewer Rosemary Herbert in her above-mentioned book:

“What I found was that I was feeling helpless and frustrated and ineffectual, and all I could think to do at night in my bed was to conjure up these fantasies of doing this man in, because it seemed to me my life would be so much simpler and so much better if he simply did not exist. I would  cook up various schemes for doing him in, and in the course of it I came up with a method, a murder method. This  was the use of oleander, which, in California, is a very common shrubbery, and it’s part of the California mythology.

Knowing in her heart of hearts that she was not cut out for homicide, Grafton eventually abandoned these fantasies. “‘I’m gonna get caught at it; I’m gonna end up in a shapeless prison dress, disgracing the very children I’m fighting to keep!'” It was at this point that the notion presented itself to her that by fictionalizing the crime she had envisioned, she would not only find a way to sublimate her anger, she might also get paid for doing so. This, then, was the genesis of A Is for Alibi, which contains, among other unique facets, murder by ground up oleander seeds.

( Grafton has now been married to Steve Humphrey for thirty years. In addition, she has several grandchildren, among whom is a granddaughter named Kinsey. Click here for a more recent interview.)

A Is for Alibi came out in 1982, the same year that Sara Paretsky published her first V.I Warshawski novel, Indemnity Only. It was in some ways a watershed year for mysteries: not one but two fully formed female private investigators burst upon the American crime fiction scene. They weren’t the first – Marcia Muller, whom Sue Grafton has called “the mother of us all,”  had begun her Sharon McCone series in 1977 with Edwin of the Iron Shoes. But there was something about the simultaneous appearance of V.I. Warshawski and Kinsey Millhone that kicked the phenomenon of the female protagonist into high gear.

Sue Grafton

Sue Grafton

Sara Paretsky

Sara Paretsky

Marcia Muller

Marcia Muller

Grafton’s role in this seminal moment was one of  a number of topics that we took up at our meeting. Of course, we zeroed in on Kinsey herself. Had her character altered in any significant way over the passing years? On the whole, we thought not – at least, not to any significant degree.

As an aid to discussion, Pauline provided us with an  extremely helpful handout. One side was entitled “Characters in A Is for Alibi.” First came Kinsey, as the  investigator, then Nikki Fife as the client. There  followed a list of the four murder victims, including the dates of death and manner of murder. The next section listed the motives for each murder, as Pauline understood them, including a question mark next to Gwen’s name, since the motive seemed a bit murky there.

Next came a list of five suspects, followed by the naming of two recurring characters, meaning  those who would appear in subsequent novels. These were identified as Henry Pitts and Rosie.

Thee final category on this list was comprised of “secondary characters unique to this book.”

On the other side of the handout were numerous discussion questions grouped under eight main headings: plot, setting, characterizations, suspense, the character of Kinsey, the quality of the writing, “problems for me in this book,” and finally, “compare this book” to later series entries. Where Grafton’s writing is concerned, we were pretty much in agreement that the quality has been consistently high throughout the series. Her screenwriting experience accounts for her exceptional facility in writing dialogue. And Kinsey’s snappy, irreverent sense of humor adds much to the reader’s enjoyment.

There were two additional questions. One concerned the aptness of the book’s title; the other invited us to speculate as to which actress would be a good choice to play Kinsey on TV or the big screen. When we got to that last one, we were somewhat stumped, though when someone suggested Sandra Bullock there was general approbation. We learned that Sue Grafton is absolutely firm in her refusal to sell the film rights for her series. Having herself worked in television, she does not trust the process with regard to maintaining a character’s integrity in the transition from print to screen. We were reminded that PD James was so appalled when the television version of  Cordelia Gray turned up  pregnant that she vowed never to write another novel featuring that character.

(Of course, on the other hand, there’s Morse – but the felicitous confluence of talent involved in the making of those films is probably more the exception than the rule.)

Due largely to Pauline’s assiduous research and preparation, this was a wonderfully stimulating discussion. We also had a larger than usual group and were meeting in a warm and gracious new venue. (Thanks for your hospitality, Ann!) Many of the responses to Pauline’s queries by various group members were insightful and perceptive.

It was a pleasure to range over Sue Grafton’s entire body of work; she’s a writer for whom most of us feel both affectionate regard and genuine respect. And unless Pauline plans to rush out and copyright the format of her handout, I myself  intend to use it as a template for future discussions!

Sue Grafton

Sue Grafton


  1. Pauline Cohen said,


    Thank you for today’s gracious remarks as well as the insightful comments you made during the Usual Suspects’ discussion of “A is for Alibi” last week. I too enjoyed our meeting, but you give me too much credit.

    It was fun to revisit Sue Grafton’s novels, and it was indeed surprising and gratifying to me that her body of work elicited the response it did from our group. And her life story is every bit as interesting as her books!


    • Pat Whipkey said,

      Our book club just read “A Is for Alibi”. In searching for discussion questions I came upon Usual Suspects and the mention of your list. Do you have it after all these years, and do you share it? If so, we’d be very grateful.
      Pat Whipkey

  2. barbara seboda said,

    there was a wonderful documentary made called “women of mystery,” which is about paretsky, muller, and grafton. we tried, unsuccessfully, to borrow it for a meeting of “the usual suspects.” it is a most worthwhile film.

  3. Yeremenko said,

    I love science fiction writing and think it is a great mind expanding genre. The pc game world is now almost a new art genre bringing people into a fully 3-d sci-fi world they can interact in with other players. There is a great leap of the imagination in every string of code.
    I myself am a sci-fi writer and have a novel called Doom Of The Shem.Doom Of The Shem is a science fiction novel that incorporates the horror of military action with the unavoidable hostilities that occur when an alien species invade a planet in search of food. The barbarity of war is brought to light by the work achieved by the nurses and medical personnel of the planets inhabitants. While a full blown military action story emerges from an ensuing war that involves the whole planet. It is especially centered on a squad of the planets army forces, who fight the alien invaders.

  4. Robert B. Parker’s The Godwulf Manuscript provides yet another occasion of exuberant good times, not to mention no-holds-barred assessment, for the Usual Suspects « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] in January, Pauline led us in a wonderfully illuminating discussion of Sue Grafton’ s first Kinsey Milhone novel, A Is for A… I’m rather liking this idea of going back to an author’s early oeuvre and seeing how it […]

  5. Usual Suspects: a most stimulating evening! « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] what we read in 2009: A Is for Alibi by Sue Grafton A Free Man of Color by Barbara Hambly The Tinderbox by Jo Bannister The Godwulf […]

  6. leslie said,

    who were sue grafton’s first nnd second husband

  7. Beverly Janus said,

    Time has pased since the last comment, but as I was preparing to lead a half hour discussion of A is for Alibi and Sue Grafton, I happened upon your inciteful commentary. Had I found you first, my six hours of research would have been saved. You did an excellent job. Thank you.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thanks so much, Beverly. Have a great discussion of this wonderful book!

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