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My Grandmother, Kinsey Millhone, and Me

In the summer of 1991, after my sophomore year of college, I lived in my family's cabin in rural New Hampshire with a couple of college friends. I had grown up on Long Island, but my family spent every summer in my father's hometown in New Hampshire and it was one of my favorite places on earth. I had a waitressing job at a high-end restaurant that allowed me lots of reading time during the day, while my friends were working, and I fell into a habit of wandering up the road to my grandmother's house and talking books with her. We had always shared a love of reading, but something about my unfettered days and lots of one-on-one time allowed our relationship to deepen and expand. An English major, I had by then read many of her favorite authors — E.M. Forster, Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Bowen, A.S. Byatt — and we talked about books and writers and she offered me ice cream from the seemingly inexhaustible store in her chest freezer, replenished every couple of weeks by the Schwann's truck.

My grandmother, whose name was Edith, lived alone in my father and his siblings' childhood home. My grandfather, who'd passed away a decade earlier, had been a farmer and teacher. Edith — we called her Bahma — wasn't overly enthusiastic about the sheep or cattle farming part of their life, but she was a skilled and avid flower and vegetable gardener and preserver of food from her garden and an incredibly talented and prolific writer. Everyone in our family still cherishes the long, newsy letters she wrote to us in her beautiful handwriting, every line crackling with wit and color. She never learned to drive and so after she was widowed she got rides to church and the library and family members' houses, but a lot of her travel was through the books she read. And boy, did she travel. Most weeks, she read at least one book, if not two or three, in addition to reading every single word of the New York Times and the Boston Globe.

When you entered her house, there was usually a stack of books on the table, ready to go back to the library or to be passed on to the next reader. That summer, I read a lot of her books, but at some point, she told me that she'd read an article about a mystery writer named Sue Grafton and wondered if we should "try her out." I went down to the town library (the Philip Read Memorial Library in Plainfield, NH) and borrowed "A is for Alibi" and "B is for Burglar." I think she read them first and pronounced them fun and worth my time. I read them and was instantly taken with the voice of Kinsey Millhone and the fact that she felt like a real woman, someone with a messy car who drank perhaps too much wine and didn't always follow the playbook, a woman who was nevertheless successful in a way that a man working the exact same job could not have been. We kept going that summer, working our way up to "G is for Gumshoe."

Edith appreciated good writing and most of her favorites came from the canon. I don't remember her reading much genre fiction. But she was not a literary snob and she delighted in Kinsey's private eye adventures. We talked about how the books worked and how they were well-executed examples of the form. We talked about Kinsey's vulnerability as a character and why the reader rooted for her. We talked about the books' flaws too. It only occurs to me now how important those conversations were for me — my grandmother gave me permission to be a mystery writer, I think. She instilled in me a sense that creating within an established genre of literature and trying to make a book the best example of its form possible was a worthwhile pursuit for someone who cared about good writing.

Only a couple weeks after I went back to college after that summer, I got the call that Edith had been diagnosed with cancer and had decided not to pursue treatment. Later, I would wonder if she'd had any sense of her illness that summer and whether Kinsey, with her tragic orphan past and her obsession with death, had resonated with her in some as-yet-unfathomable way. I was in college only an hour-and-a-half away and so I drove to spend a weekend with her before she moved in with my aunt and uncle, where she would be cared for during her last months. She was scared and also resolute. She wanted to die on her own terms, I think.

I found a copy of "H is for Homicide" at a bookstore and brought it with me that weekend. We talked about the other books she'd been reading but I don't know if she ever read Kinsey's eighth adventure. After she died, I would think of her each spring when Sue Grafton published a new novel. I've thought of her lots of other times too of course, when I read a great novel I knew she would have loved, when I finished writing and then published my first novel, or as I watched my own three children grow up and become readers.

I thought of her today, when I got the exciting news that "A Stolen Child" has been nominated for the Mystery Writers of America G. P. Putnam's Sons Sue Grafton Memorial Award. I think Edith would have gotten a kick out of the circularity of it, of our old friend Kinsey being involved somehow in my writing career. I'll think of her when I sit down to write my next book too, and I'll try to make it the best version of itself it can be.


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