It’s been almost two years since we lost Sue Grafton—a loss that made the entire publishing family who worked with her, knew her, or read her unbelievably sad. All the Alphabet books she wrote for more than 30 years, her extraordinary character Kinsey Millhone, Sue’s own wry sense of humor (for instance, on not coloring her hair: “Why would I put something on my head that you have to wear gloves to apply?”), the Kentucky twang, and more: all of it made us love her. Not just admire her, or respect her, or enjoy her, but love her. All of this makes us miss her more.
Sue’s front of mind again. With her every-other-year schedule, it would be right about now that we’d be publishing her last alphabetical book starring Kinsey, Z Is for Zero. It’s the only name of a book she let her editor, publisher, agent, and the media know ahead of time. Her other titles were always a big reveal. In fact, we all got it wrong when she asked her publishing team to guess what Y was for—even after reading the early manuscript! So we know what Z was going to be called, but we can’t imagine what it was actually going to be, what zero meant, or what might come next for Sue (and us).
As Sue’s daughter decreed, “the alphabet now ends at Y.” But still, I think of Z.
Reading Y, I could see that Sue was getting close to wrapping up the series, honing pieces of the long-running story while giving readers yet another great book (the Hungarian restaurant still served questionable food and awful wine, the friends were still complicated, and Kinsey needed “me time” like no other PI in fiction). She knew she was winding down the series, because, “duh” (as she’d say), she knew the alphabet was ending.
Sue’s love and loyalties ran deep, to say the obvious: Marian Wood was her editor from the beginning, with the letter A, and Molly Friedrich was her agent since the letter B. I only got involved around S—very much a latecomer.
Sue’s love for booksellers and her readers had deep roots as well. Long after she could have stopped touring, she continued (even though flying was definitely not her thing). She has said she was at her most outgoing when she went on tour, and she had a truly great time mixing it up with fans. That Sue was different from the “shadow” Sue, who actually dreamt up and wrote the books alone.
Sometimes Sue would be asked what she’d do after Z, but she never got into details. Only that it might be fiction, that Kinsey might make an appearance, and that no, there would not be double letters (AA, BB, CC) or numbers going forward.
As a result of a lifelong allergy to the movie business informed by her early days of writing screenplays for television, Sue promised her family that she’d come back to haunt them if they ever sold the movie or TV rights to her beloved character. (Though her daughter Jamie jokingly told me she was a little tempted just because she missed her mom—maybe she would come back to haunt her.) But Sue was firm and, true-to-character, pretty darn clear about it: in an interview she declared of Hollywood, “I would never let those clowns get their hands on my work.”
So a movie or TV series seems very unlikely, as does a ghost-written book for Z. We never discussed it with Sue; we knew better! So, there never will be a Z Is for Zero, except in the dreams and imaginations of her readers. But there are 25 other letters in the alphabet, and a legacy that’s close to 10,000 pages of Kinsey Millhone novels. For me and my fall reading, I’m going to go back and start with A Is for Alibi to spend some quality time with Kinsey—and with Sue.
Ivan Held is president of the Putnam, Dutton, and Berkley imprints of Penguin Random House.