In The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade, the original hard-boiled detective, tells the story of a real estate agent named Flitcraft who passes a construction site one day and is nearly killed by a falling beam. Overwhelmed by the randomness of everyday life, Flitcraft abandons his wife, his children, his job -- his whole orderly, prefab identity -- and never looks back.

The Flitcraft principle -- that no one, not even a flinty private-eye like Spade, can impose order on a universe governed by blind chance --has preoccupied crime writers ever since, not least of them Sue Grafton, whose own hard-boiled female sleuth, Kinsey Millhone, could pass for Spade's brainy, irreverent step-daughter. "All of us run the risk of dropping dead at any moment of the day," Grafton tells PW one recent afternoon in the writing studio of her sprawling Spanish revival home in Montecito, Calif. "How do we know that lightning won't strike or the mudslide won't come down the hill or the truck crash into us on the highway? A plane could crash through this roof and kill us as we speak."

Lest a visitor worry that a conversation with Grafton is all existentialist Sturm und Drang, a pixieish smile plays across her face as she ponders the macabre possibilities. She needn't look far. Within arm's reach are volumes on fingerprinting and gunshot wounds, and a complete set of her own blockbuster alphabetical mystery series, from the latest installment, N Is for Noose, out soon from Holt, to the first, A Is for Alibi, which Holt published in 1982.

That landmark novel channeled all the inchoate rage of Grafton's custody battles with a second husband and her stagnant career writing Hollywood teleplays into the travails of a sassy, twice-divorced P.I. cruising the mean streets of Santa Teresa, Calif., in a battered VW Bug. In Alibi's's final scene -- as cold-blooded a metaphor for female empowerment as anyone might wish -- Millhone emerges from a garbage can and blows away a treacherous paramour. "I had read the books in which the femme fatale turns out to be the wicked one and gets drawn and quartered," Grafton says, with a Louisville twang. "I was taking a very traditional male fantasy and flipping it."

Grafton has been mowing down noir stereotypes of women ever since. In subsequent books, alongside Marcia Muller and Sarah Paretsky, Grafton helped reinvent the hard-boiled mystery for a mass audience of female readers-an audience bored by the homilies of romantic suspense that constituted perhaps the largest, book-buying segment of American consumer society.

And Grafton has been rewarded lavishly for her efforts, as becomes clear when the author ushers us across her four-and-a-half-acre estate. Still glistening from an afternoon shower are a croquet court, putting green and a garden bursting with so many artichokes, persimmons, and California poppies that Grafton herself doesn't quite seem to know what to do with it all. Last month, the kiwi trees yielded close to 1000 kiwis which she gave to the yardsmen. "I don't even eat kiwis," she says.

If Grafton occasionally leaves the impression that she has tumbled down a rabbit hole only to find reality turned upside-down (on the hard drive of her computer is a Sue Grafton dossier compiled by Millhone; and Grafton admits that the fictional town of Santa Teresa, based on neighboring Santa Barbara, "has a vividness to me that the real town sometimes fails to exhibit"), the vast popularity of her books nevertheless owe a good deal to the indelible realism of her straight-talking and straight-shooting heroine. The author often receives letters announcing the birth of babies named Kinsey and Holt recently published G is for Grafton, a guide to the fictional universe of Kinsey Millhone as obsessive as any volume of Sherlock Holmesiana. "I resent the fact that she has a biographer," says Grafton. "Nobody's come along to write the story of my life."

Alphabet Soup

Given her unusual road to success, a biographer may well be waiting by the phone. Grafton projects a cool professionalism in discussing the business of writing -- clearly the byproduct of decades spent honing her craft in the shadows of commercial obscurity. "She's covered all the bases," says Holt publisher Michael Naumann. "She's not just a creative writer but someone who could run a publishing house herself."

The granddaughter of Presbyterian missionaries, and the daughter of a Louisville municipal bond attorney, C.W. Grafton, who wrote detective novels in his spare time, Grafton was left largely to her own devices as a child by parents whom she describes as "alcoholics of a very genteel sort." Encouraged, nevertheless, to read widely, she obtained a B.A. from the University of Louisville in 1961, laying claim to voracious, if sometimes indiscriminate, reading habits. Regency romance novels and detective fiction helped sustain her through her first two marriages, before a fiction contest led to a contract with Macmillan to publish her first novel, Kezia Dane, in 1967. A second novel, The Lolly-Madonna War, appeared in England from Peter Owen in 1969.

Neither book was crime fiction, and the money wasn't good, but things soon began to break Grafton's way. Even as her second marriage unraveled, her second novel was optioned by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. "I left the marriage, took the cat and the three kids and went to Hollywood and lived with a film producer for three years," she recalls. Thus began a tumultuous stint in Tinseltown, as Grafton accepted virtually every screenwriting job that came her way, scripting an episode of Rhoda, a slew of movies for network TV and a series of Agatha Christie adaptations co-written with her present husband, Steve Humphries, who holds a Ph.D. in physics.

"I loved the education of it," Grafton says of her screenwriting stint. "There's nothing like a film script to teach you structure, which is what the mystery is about. What I hated about Hollywood was doing business. I hated the democratic process where everybody got a vote. I am not a team player. I was not a good sport. I spent a lot of that time trying to suppress a natural rage that came billowing out when people tried to tell me how to do my work." Grafton has adamantly refused to sell her books to Hollywood, and it's clear that her experience there still rankles. "Kinsey Millhone was my tiny pickax whereby I got out of prison," she says. "And I would be a fool to sell her back to them."

By 1977, in the midst of a custody battle, Grafton found herself at a personal and professional crossroads. Then suddenly, as if brushed back by a falling beam, she began plotting her escape. "I finally said to myself, 'Darling, nobody's holding a gun to your head,'" she recalls. Borrowing a plot device from Edward Gorey's Gashleycrumb Tinies ("A is for Amy who fell down the stairs..."), and a fictional setting -- Santa Teresa -- invented by Ross MacDonald, Grafton set out to create a mystery series in the gritty tradition of Chandler, Hammet and Spillane, centered on a private-eye with whom she could truly identify. "I think certainly the whole issue of homicide was an easy way to funnel a lot of rage and a lot of frustration. At that point I didn't know how to fight. I thought it was enough to be a nice girl. Now I know how to fight and now I have the money to fight if anybody wants to take me on. In those days I was ill-equipped and so fantasy was the great equalizer." That Grafton would change the face -- or at least the gender -- of crime fiction in the process couldn't have seemed more remote. "I didn't know anything about private investigators, police procedure or forensics. I was learning everything as fast as I could. So I thought, I'm going to make her female because at least that's my area of expertise.

"Later, to hear people refer to me as a pioneer just sounds so silly. I think pioneers are people who know the Indians are out there and they're crossing the mountains anyway. I didn't know the Indians were out there. I didn't know there weren't cities on the other side of the mountains. To back into something out of ignorance hardly makes someone a pioneer."

Still, it's hard not to be reminded of Grafton's contribution to the genre, pioneering or not, when reading N Is for Noose. In that novel, Millhone is hired by the distraught widow of a police detective and is asked to find out what was troubling him before he died. To do so, Millhone must infiltrate the old boy's club that is the local sheriff's department. Along the way, she unearths family secrets her employer would much rather have left buried. "I was interested in a marriage in which there was a failure to communicate so that his widow is left wondering who this man is," explains Grafton. "I like the irony of the fact that because she pushed, because she couldn't trust her husband's affections for her, she in fact opened Pandora's box."

Under the Sign of the Owl

The 1 million-copy first printing Holt has announced for the book -- the largest in the company's history -- may prove a different sort of Pandora's box. Grafton's last three novels, M Is for Malice, L Is for Lawless and K Is for Killer, sold in the 500,000-copy range in hardcover, up from roughly 300,000 hardcover sales for J Is for Judgment. There are close to 10 million copies of her books in print, and she's been translated into 26 languages, outselling even such titans of crime writing as Dick Francis and Robert Parker. But has she reached a ceiling of hardcover sales that a house like Holt, which will publish just 301 titles in 1998 (as compared to the 4000-odd annual titles of the newly incorporated Random, Inc.), doesn't have the power to shatter? Marion Wood, who has been Grafton's editor since acquiring A Is for Alibi based on a 65-page manuscript, doesn't believe so. "I do think we can push her further," says Wood, who sees Grafton's hardcover performance, not the mass market business from Fawcett, as the force that drives the Grafton franchise. "The tail isn't wagging the dog any more," says Wood. "You are no longer expecting to go out small with a hardcover assuming that the paperback will bring the market to you. The hardcover has to establish the writer now and the paperback reaps the rewards."

Without question, the hothouse flowers on Holt's generally upmarket list couldn't flourish without the perennial support of a staple like Grafton. "It certainly is a major source of our company's income," Naumann says of the series. "But that is always true, whether it's Sue Grafton or Koonts or Grisham. Without big books, we couldn't publish smaller books. The truth is, when Sue Grafton started out, there were other big books that supported her."

As Grafton plots out Millhone's 15th adventure, it's clear that the rage that propelled her first mystery novels has softened. She now has two grandchildren (one named Kinsey), and keeps to a routine as idyllic and quirky as any writer could hope for, rising promptly, she says, at 5:58 a.m. to walk on the beach for three miles before repairing to her office at 9 o'clock to begin the day's writing. "I don't wear pantyhose and heels, but I treat this as a job and I wear makeup. I don't work in my pajamas."

Grafton receives piles of letters from zealous readers and is attentive to their concerns, within limits. "I get chided a lot for coarse language. I actually tone it down. I have met some scuzz bags in this world who cuss like sailors. I clean it up, but they still come after me for that. I say 'Fuck 'em.' "

Millhone, who has aged one year every two-and-a-half books, has been slow to catch up with the changes in her creator's life. At the present rate, Millhone will be 40 years old when Grafton reaches what she says will be Z Is for Zero sometime around 2015. This has created a wholly unintentional gulf between their worlds that Grafton may erase by fast-forwarding 10 years without aging her characters. "But I will have to announce it because my readers, like most mystery readers, are very detail-oriented," Grafton says with a roll of the eyes, "and they get very upset if I make a mistake."