I recently saw a list of best female detectives in literature, and was scandalized that Kinsey Millhone’s name was not among the contenders. So, I decided to write a post dedicated solely to her.
If you haven’t heard of Kinsey Millhone, she is the detective your grandmother reads. That is to say, Kinsey first appeared in A is for Alibi by Sue Grafton, in 1982. Grafton wasn’t intending on writing a series, but she committed to the concept in 1985 with B is for Burglary and put out a book every year or so for 35 years until her death in 2017. Kinsey Millhone is the protagonist of all the books, though the in-book timeline only spans ten years, keeping Kinsey in the 80s.
That being said, she is an institution in our world, and has inspired a generation of women detectives in fiction. Sue Grafton is also an institution, and just because these books were staples at my grandma’s house does not mean they aren’t relevant to the modern reader. Here’s why I love Kinsey:
Not offensive to women = 0/1 pt
I haven’t read every single Kinsey Millhone book yet (sometimes called the Alphabet Mysteries), so I can’t say with 100% certainty that there isn’t an offensive scene throughout the 25 books. However, I want to talk about just the idea of a woman-fronted mystery series. Much has been said about male violence against women and its portrayal in literature (here’s just one article about rape in fiction, here’s the literary award that goes to thrillers/mysteries without violence towards women, telling that we even have to have such a thing). With a woman writer and a woman main character, you can guess that the chances of graphic, offensive representations of women victims will be reduced. In this case, you’d be right.
I did take off the point here though, because Kinsey still has a damaging perspective around female domestic violence victims. She often asks herself or the survivors why they don’t just leave. The women explain how their money is being controlled, or how they come from abusive families, but despite Sue Grafton’s apparent understanding of the many ways women are trapped in these situations, Kinsey remains unsympathetic.
Features a woman as the main protagonist and/or supporting character = 2/2 pts
Kinsey is meant to be a classic hard-boiled detective. She’s a loner, rough around the edges, and realistic about power structures that keep people down. She feels a call to duty in the form of detective work, despite the fact that she can barely keep her personal life in order or a long term relationship. Her closest friend is her 80-year-old landlord.
In short, she’s every classic detective. And yet. When I read these books I know I won’t have to suffer through any creepy descriptions of how sexy female murder victims are. I know there will be some justice for women, I know the world portrayed in the stories will be the world I see and experience in my own life because of the female lens over it.
Passes the Bechdel-Wallace test = 3/3 pts
There are 25 books, so the series passes every test for representation, though individual books often fail tests for racial rep and LGBT rep. The books also naturally modernize as we move into the future, so you can see Sue Grafton draw into the present with better representations of people of color and LGBT groups as time goes on.
Artistic and/or Entertaining = 4/4 pts
I don’t remember which letter I first read of Kinsey’s. Probably something random like T is for Trespass. After reading a few in random order, I went back to the beginning to read them in order.
These are the perfect road trip books (I have strong opinions on the various audiobook narrators though). The mysteries are solid, often with just enough of a twist to keep you guessing, and as they are told in first person you really feel like you’re going along with Kinsey. Personally, I like detective stories that show the amount of paperwork and waiting and mundane tasks. Kinsey’s life isn’t glamorous, it is doggedness and grit that wins her and her clients the day. I’m not a person who’s always trying to guess the end of a mystery, I like to be along for the ride. Sometimes a contact doesn’t get back to Kinsey until just the right moment at the end of the book, but that information would not have been as valuable if Kinsey hadn’t been working in the meantime. There is often also a funny sideplot with characters both wacky and conniving.
Above and Beyond General Media = 5/5 pts
There are a lot of novels that subvert classic detective tropes and those books are great too. But I like that Sue Grafton made Kinsey as hard boiled as they come. She fits every mold and yet breaks them, because Grafton chose to write a hard-boiled detective who was also authentically a woman character. Kinsey (mostly) knows and accepts herself for who she is. Under pressure, she’s both sharp and a warrior for the people. I recommend you get to know her. Basically what I’m saying is your grandma has good taste.
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