I never got around to properly getting Sue Grafton.
When it came to literary escapist junk food, Grafton — Santa Barbara’s most successful bestselling mystery writer — never became my golden parachute. I always felt guilty about this because, in person, Grafton was so radiantly generous. With other writers. With her readers whom she spoiled rotten with a million and one small kindnesses. With the Santa Barbara writers’ conference.
And how could anyone not be awed by Grafton’s relentless discipline — matched only Santa Barbara’s other writer, T.C. Boyle — churning out no less than 25 Kinsey Millhone mysteries over the past 35 years. No, she was not Ross Macdonald, as her detractors insisted on pointing out ad nauseam; he was Santa Barbara’s most famous and literarily acceptable mystery writer ever. And maybe she wasn’t Margaret Millar either, Millar being the brooding-irascible, mystery-writing wife of Macdonald, who by all critical reckonings was even better than her more acclaimed husband.
There was always more to Grafton than her smart, fun, and gimmicky alphabet soup of titles — A is for Alibi all the way up to Y is for Yesterday. I always figured she’d keep going forever and was looking forward to the day she released AA is for Aardvark. But cancer intervened, and Grafton was cut short before she could get around to Z.
At a time when mystery writing was dominated by old-school, macho, hard-boiled dicks forever mewling into their over-imbibed alcoholic beverages about the troubles they’ve seen and how it’s sooo hard being a man and doing what a man’s got to do, the ever-cheerful Sue Grafton brought us the unapologetically prickly Kinsey Millhone, who didn’t give a shit how she looked and seemed to go out of her way not to ingratiate herself.
No one ever asked Kinsey Millhone why she wasn’t smiling; they knew better. Okay, maybe she wasn’t as confrontationally bad-assed as Sara Paretsky’s female sleuth V.I. Warshawski, who appeared on the literary scene the same year, 1982, as Millhone. But pretty damn close. And Paretsky’s books were set in Chicago, where you have to be bad-ass just to cross the street, not sunny Santa Barbara with its soft, supple underbelly of wealth, greed, narcissism, and corruption.
Grafton set her action in the fictional seaside town of Santa Teresa, a habit she picked up as a tip of the hat to Ross Macdonald, who did the same when writing about Santa Barbara. (If you want to read a mystery that takes place in a town called Santa Barbara that actually is Santa Barbara, try any of the many Michael Collins — real name Dennis Lynds — books about Dan Fortune, the one-armed dick whose political subtext was as left leaning as his prose was hard-boiled.) Grafton’s fans delighted in deciphering which iconic Santa Barbara places and landmarks she was forever referring to.
In honor of Sue Grafton, who helped put Santa Barbara on the map — however subliminally— we’re asking her readers to submit any passages you especially love that describe actual places in Santa Barbara. I’m not sure what we’ll do with it all, but something.
Send us the passage and your interpretation of the real-life place that inspired it to firstname.lastname@example.org.