Sue Grafton: Crime in Fact and Fiction
The author of the Kinsey Millhone series shares the inspiration for Y is for Yesterday, the penultimate novel in the Alphabet series.
Sue Grafton writes about how fictional crimes differ from reality and shares her inspiration for the penultimate novel in the Kinsey Millhone series, Y is for Yesterday.
There are two primary conceits that propel a murder mystery. The first is that if you are murdered, it will be the result of an intentional, well-thought-out scheme, planned and executed (as it were) by someone whose actions have meaning, purpose, and a point; preferably one that’s not too obvious to the average observer.
The second conceit in a murder mystery is that if you are murdered, there will arise a tireless, determined, incredibly smart detective who will move heaven and earth to see that justice is served in the wake of your demise. This is where Kinsey Millhone comes to the fore in Y is for Yesterday, her twenty-fifth career outing.
As a detective novelist, I am of two minds when it comes to the issue of ‘real’ versus invented crime. It’s been my observation that most of the wrongdoing you read about in your daily paper is not the ‘stuff’ of good fiction. In reality, murder, robbery, fraud, assault and related offences against persons and property tend to be impulsive, poorly planned, alcohol-fueled, and devoid of all cunning and subtlety. For instance, two young men take out a hefty insurance policy on the lives of their parents, and next thing you know, their parents are dead ‘at the hands of strangers’ and the ‘boys’ are bereft…though comforted to some extent by the Rolex watches and sports vehicles the insurance monies have provided. Or a business owner whose trade has fallen on hard times watches in apparent despair as his warehouse burns to the ground, although later investigation reveals that his merchandise has been spared by having been moved to another facility in advance of the conflagration. Or an audit turns up evidence that the faithful bookkeeper of the past thirty-five years has been skimming money from the till to pay for her lavish vacations. In none of these instances, could I create a fictional narrative that would fool anyone.
On the other hand, fictional homicide, imaginary heists, and thievery accomplished through months of careful preparation have the capacity to entertain us endlessly. As readers, we can identify with the ingenious lawbreakers whose special knowledge uniquely equips them to outwit the authorities. Invented crime has the advantage of solid motivation and painstaking organization, along with a dash of improvisation tossed in when all doesn’t go quite as intended.
I’ve twice had occasion to incorporate ‘real’ crime in the creation of a storyline for one of the Kinsey Millhone alphabet mysteries - the first being in Q is for Quarry. I found myself seated next to a forensic pathologist at a dinner party who told me the story of a female homicide victim found near a quarry in 1969 who, despite her unusual dental malocclusions and extensive fillings, was never identified. Inspired by the makings of this case, I contacted the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office, who gave me access to the old case notes. I used those details as the jumping-off point for a tale in which both victim and perpetrator were eventually revealed through wholly make-believe circumstances.
In Y is for Yesterday, I dovetailed two real-life news events to generate a story, which I expanded to cover the ten years (between 1979 and 1989) when Kinsey Millhone is hired to unravel the particulars. One of the cases centred on the shooting death of a teenager at the hands of a classmate. A related event entailed the sexual assault of a young girl by four young men who photographed the abuse and then circulated the images among their circle of acquaintances. By weaving together these two elements, I spin a yarn that is both dark and complex, and one that will keep the reader guessing.