X Hits the Spot
“My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed by the state of California. I’m thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids. The day before yesterday I killed someone and the fact weighs heavily on my mind.”
That is how Sue Grafton introduced her doughty P.I. in A Is for Alibi, the book that launched her alphabet series in 1982. Twenty-three bestselling books later, Kinsey has solved scores of crimes, many of them violent. She has come within inches of death multiple times. She has not remarried but has had several complicated relationships. In the real world, Grafton, who was 42 when Alibi was published, is now 75 years old. In X, on the other hand, Kinsey is only 38.
It’s March 1989 in fictional Santa Teresa, California (a town whose coordinates, if available, would probably point you to Santa Barbara), a long-ago time when some people still used index cards for research, typewriters for writing, the postal service for delivering messages, and landlines for speaking with friends and colleagues. It’s not an entirely unfamiliar world: California is suffering a serious drought, and Kinsey’s 89-year-old landlord, Henry Pitts, is obsessed with finding ways to trim his spiraling water bill.
Kinsey, annoyed by Henry’s sunburned yard and plumbing innovations, is even more exasperated by his capitulation to their new neighbors, an elderly couple who have suckered him into buying their groceries and running their errands. Rebuffing their attempts to get her to help too, she focuses instead on a widowed friend who urgently needs to find missing financial documents before the I.R.S. audits her late husband. In addition, she has been hired by a wealthy divorcée to find a long-lost son, a job that looks simple at first but that quickly turns complex and time-consuming.
Meanwhile, in a pricier part of town, Teddy Xanakis seems to be planning a heist against her ex-husband, Ari.
It’s all in a month’s work for Kinsey, who recently came into a fairly large sum of money and could take some significant time off if she wanted to. But, she tells us, “anyone who knows me will testify to how ill-suited I am to a life of leisure. When it comes to work, it isn’t so much what we do or how much we’re paid; it’s the satisfaction we take in doing it.” Kinsey takes enormous satisfaction in chastising cheaters.
“My quest for law and order began in the first grade when I ventured into the cloakroom and surprised a classmate snitching a chocolate bar from my Howdy Doody lunch box,” she explains. “The teacher appeared at that very moment and caught the child with my candy in hand. I anticipated due process, but the sniveling little shit burst into tears, claiming I’d stolen it from her. She received no punishment at all while I was reprimanded.… From that singular event, my notion of fair play was set, and, in sum, it is this: the righteous are struck down while the sticky-fingered escape. I’ve labored all my life to see that justice plays out the other way around.”
Kinsey’s dogged quest for justice has a lot to do with why the alphabet series numbers millions of copies in more than two dozen languages, why X jumped to first place on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list just weeks after its August 25 publication, and why I put a library hold on each forthcoming book just as soon as I learn its title. Researchers say we may be born with a sense of fairness. By the time we start preschool, “no fair” is one of our favorite expressions. As adults, we fume if we think politicians are giving an unfair advantage to the rich—or to the poor. We think we want justice, and justice is what crime writers (Patricia Highsmith excepted) offer us.
Unalloyed justice, however, is not necessarily what anyone craves after a hard day’s work. Fortunately, Kinsey’s righteous pursuits are liberally spiced with wit and humor. It’s hard not to love her. She’s funny. She’s sassy. She eats junk food and cuts her hair with nail scissors. She lives in a repurposed garage. Though she thinks of herself as a loner, she’s fiercely devoted to the genial Henry and his odd assortment of siblings.
But when Kinsey smells trouble, she springs into action; and with Kinsey on their tail, the wicked cease to prosper. “I’m getting more male readers,” Grafton told Allen Pierleoni at the Sacramento Bee, “because I say to guys, ‘This isn’t about mascara and panty hose, it’s about kicking serious ass.’ They go along with that.” Yet even when pursuing a serial killer, Kinsey seems more human than Jack Reacher, for example, or Philip Marlowe. She is not a killing machine, and her signature drink is cheap Chardonnay.