Kinsey Millhone likes hardboiled eggs, which personally I find disgusting. She slices them into sandwiches, often. She does it because eggs in bread are a sensual pleasure she enjoys and—an imperative and—because they’re a sensual pleasure that’s easy and quick for her to achieve. She lives alone and eats alone, neither of which I have a problem with, but she takes her meals mostly in a bar-restaurant she likes because she doesn’t like it. For every now and then, I can get behind this kind of experience-chasing, cathartic masochism, but Kinsey takes it a step too far. She eats so much cabbage and cow gristle at this place that’s she’s come to know the owners, and to love them. The only people Kinsey keeps in her life are the old.
Kinsey doesn’t have any hobbies, and she doesn’t cook, unless you count the eggs, and I don’t. She doesn’t like to shop or spend time in places—she pursues knowledge, but not far outside the bounds of its relevance. To what? To her shit-paying dangerous PI job, which is where and how she meets everyone she knows. If you get fond of a Kinsey Millhone boyfriend, buckle up, because you probably won’t hear from him again for another ten or fifteen books. Unless you count hearing about how Kinsey holds no hard feelings against him (except for maybe one or two) as hearing from him. Which again: I do not.
Kinsey would be a boring person if she didn’t have such an eventful life. Then again, she has the life she has because she’s not a boring person. She’s fair-minded and tenacious. She’s a woman who became a private investigator in 198X, because she’s absolutely suited for the job. She’s written that way, and not over-written—Kinsey Millhone has enough to be getting on with, in the execution of her duties, to allow for her being unexciting the “rest” of the off-page time. Her written life is actually one of careful balance. Kinsey isn’t boring, because she’s not bored, and we see what she sees (mind’s eye and all). She sees things that interest her, because that’s what she looks for. The story is coming from inside her perspective.
Kinsey likes hardboiled egg sandwiches, but she also likes pickle and peanut butter ones. Let me tell, you, my life is better for the introduction of that combo. She cuts her own hair in the bathroom mirror with nail scissors, like I did for twelve years and change, and I feel that as a sisterhood of the soul. I started seeing a hairdresser this year, but it’s a personal understanding you don’t graduate from, that “why not just do it myself” attitude. I keep going to this hairdresser, because she did exactly what I did, only she did it easier. There’s a utilitarian urge within the definition of Kinsey Millhone, and it’s one that I understand. Kinsey goes running, owns a gun, and has shot people, but I know, with no shadow of a doubt, that I’d be her friend. She’d get me. She does. She’s my paperback pal, and I pick her up when I need to. She and I function the same.
Now, I am a person who likes clothing, buying and wearing. I enjoy the opportunities within fashion, and if you read Kinsey (who owns one black dress, one skirt, two turtlenecks, and a pair of jeans and calls that practical not barren) you may think that’s a mismatch, a place where we differ. Technically, I suppose that’s right. What I like about clothes the most, though, is how they inform atmosphere and what can be read from that: the combination of person, outfit, and environment. Kinsey’s wardrobe is small, but through Sue Grafton it speaks volumes. Every outfit described in her books, and the outfits and books are both numerous, speak comparable ones.
Here's another fantastic use of detail. You either recognise the brand & what it means, or you recognise kinsey's incomplete recognition pic.twitter.com/Abd79dtS6A
— claire "🤡" napier (@illusClaire) December 9, 2017
Being a functional ascetic and natural hedonist (Kinsey will fuck all night on new sheets and savor it, but she won’t be the one wasteful enough to have bought them) makes Kinsey’s behavioral identity a simple framework for understanding her emotional one. She cuts her own hair, because why spare the time or trust or expense, and anyway, she can do it. She lets other people cut her hair twice only, both times in connection with the other, seven books and ten real-world years apart. The first time it’s a teenaged sex worker Kinsey sister-bonds with while protecting her, ultimately inefficiently, from murderers (K is for Killer). The second it’s a lover, a man associated with her time on that case come back into her life (R is for Ricochet). They snip, snip, snip, right next to her unprotected neck, friendless orphan Kinsey with her bullet scars and reflexive insecurities. She lets them. And afterwards she looks great. (That’s allegory. Wink!) Kinsey’s worst ever action is performed in vengeance for that girl. Cheney, the lover, stays in her mind, and in the mouth of her narrative voice if not her actual life. When Kinsey changes her routine, you always, always know why.
I’ve got to stop here and mention that Sue Grafton has just died. I was writing this, and she died. Kinsey’s last book will never be finished and there’s no potential that Sue Grafton will ever know how much I’ve valued her literary companionship. That doesn’t matter, because she had sales numbers and good reviews and plenty of good reader feedback, but me, personally…I will never be able to thank her for being a woman writing this woman for me. And for everyone. I will never be able to thank her for the mental space she gave me. I’ll have to fund a way to thank the world instead. Kinsey will go unfinished, which is perfectly thematic; I don’t mind that, because I trust her. She knows how to get on. So the alphabet has ended with Y. Well, Y not? Where’s the proof that life is fair or orderly? It’s not. It’s just sad sometimes.
Kinsey Millhone spent twenty-five books letting only the aged into her life on a permanent basis and eating over the sink, so she didn’t have to clean a table or a plate, and screwing men she cared for without thinking ahead about what would happen (what happened was always that it ended, until they came back, because Kinsey likes it easy). Kinsey spent her books getting older, wiser, kinder, braver, but always staying Kinsey, always short fused, and afraid to trust for good, and willing to skip out if people started feeling she was obliged to them. When I think about her I think about Pratchett’s Moist Von Lipwig: he can stay if he can convince himself he can leave at any moment.
Kinsey is afraid of the longness of life, which is another place we differ, but Sue Grafton wrote her for thirty years and died aged seventy-seven, so there’s more to the fear than the literal. Kinsey is a literary creation, and we use her for what we need from her to allow ourselves to be agreeably ourselves. Kinsey’s imperfect and obstinate, which is why she can stand and solve crime. She is who we need her to be, and she’s been who I needed her to be since I found her in my school library. She has the spirit of noir right in her bones, drawn direct through Ross Macdonald, but her singularity lies in her navigation of the domestic “despite” her basic aversion to the traditionally wifely. Sue and Kinsey were both twice-divorced by the first page of A is for Alibi, and even beyond the nuance of the greatest literary noir detectives, Kinsey’s books appreciate the state of disarray in which a soul can be found after the basest disrespect. Grafton is noir by way of Christie, another divorced woman writer of the twentieth century.
They both see the pain that can be found in a kitchen or a village hall or a disrespectful marriage. They can both show you how murder might spring from a spiritual wound without pretending there’s some sort of invulnerability to the act. They understand the meaning of “home,” whether home might be a house, a workplace, a person, or something else. They understand that violation is not simply something that can happen to the body, but to the psyche and the heart. And they believe that women of all classes are people in a way that takes knowing it from the inside.
That’s why I delight every time Kinsey eats a sliced egg sandwich. Hard boiled: yes. But hardboiled in the hands of someone expected to prepare lunch. Kinsey Millhone has been there for us. And frankly, she never has to go away. That is the magic of writing. Sue Grafton really knew how to do it.