Crime In The City
12:58 am
Thu August 15, 2013

In 'Alphabet' Mysteries, 'S' Is Really For Santa Barbara

Originally published on Thu August 15, 2013 7:27 am

Novelist Sue Grafton is a real hoot. She's just as likely to talk, in that native Kentucky drawl of hers, about her prized silver-coin mint julep cups as about a juicy murder mystery. But she does have a crime writer's imagination.

"I always say to people, 'Don't cross me, OK? Because you will be so sorry,'" she says. "'I have ways to kill you you ain't even thought of yet.'"

Grafton is famous for her "Alphabet" mystery series. Private investigator Kinsey Millhone is the heroine , but the novels' setting also plays a starring role: Millhone lives and works in Santa Teresa, a fictional town based on Santa Barbara, Calif.

'The Goddess Of Santa Teresa'

We're driving through Santa Barbara, with Grafton behind the wheel of her Mercedes. As she writes in A Is for Alibi, the series' kickoff whodunit, the city is "an artfully arranged" Southern California town:

"The public buildings look like old Spanish missions, the private homes look like magazine illustrations, the palm trees are trimmed of unsightly brown fronds, and the marina is as perfect as a picture postcard."

"What better setting for murder and mayhem than a gorgeous town like this?" she asks.

Grafton says she used to think Santa Barbara's beautiful views and temperate weather were monotonous. Now, she kisses the ground of her real-life and fictional setting every day.

The 73-year-old author calls herself the Goddess of Santa Teresa.

"I control the weather; I can move real estate at will; I can change the orientation of streets," she explains. "And I am not only responsible for all the homicides, I am responsible for the solution to all those crimes."

Those solutions come about through her alter ego, Kinsey Millhone — whose name, like Santa Teresa's, she lifted from the writings of hard-boiled crime novelist Ross MacDonald. Millhone is a feisty gumshoe who curses a lot and likes to eat peanut butter and pickle sandwiches.

"She's the person I might have been had I not married young and had my children," Grafton says. "[Though] I am not an adventuresome sort. I'm terrified of violence. And if I'm stopped by the cops, I'm in a white-hot sweat. Kinsey is also respectful of law and order, but she does break and enter. You know, that's OK."

23 Letters Down, Three To Go

From the beach, on a clear day, you can see offshore oil rigs bobbing up and down on the Pacific horizon. It's hard to imagine now that Santa Barbara was the site of one of the country's biggest oil spills in 1969. Still, Grafton says she never goes in the water.

"The ocean is so cold and so dirty," she confides, "and there are things down in there that will bite you."

Instead, we head over to a Santa Barbara locale where some of her characters have met their demise: the long wooden pier at Stearns Wharf. It's a tourist spot with restaurants, fishermen and even a psychic, all overlooking a scenic marina.

"This is called the poor man's yacht harbor, 'cause you can park out there for nothin'," Grafton says. "It is so much a part of Santa Teresa. I'll show you the marina where, at the end of J Is for Judgement, Renata Huff goes off."

Grafton began writing the Kinsey Millhone mysteries in 1982, alphabetizing the title of each book with crime words. On the pier, Grafton quickly recites the list: "Alibi, burglar, corpse, deadbeat, E Is for Evidence, F Is for Fugitive, G Is for Gumshoe, homicide, innocent, J Is for Judgement, K Is for Killer, L Is for Lawless, M Is for Malice, N Is for Noose, O Is for Outlaw, P Is for Peril, Q Is for Quarry, R Is for Ricochet, S Is for Silence, T Is for Trespass, U Is for Undertow, V Is for Vengeance."

The next book will be W is for Wasted. Grafton promises "z" will be for "zero" — and after she finishes that one, she's taking a nap.

Truth Is More Frustrating Than Fiction

Kinsey Millhone likes to jog around the town's bird sanctuary to blow off steam. Every morning, Grafton takes a three-hour walk here and in other nature spots. On the headphones, instead of grooving to music-- which she detests-- she listens to an evangelistic financial talk show.

The bird sanctuary is where Grafton set up a fictitious homeless encampment in her latest book. Across the street, there's a Mexican cafe that serves as a hangout for police officers.

"You get a margarita there and you can hardly walk to your car," Grafton quips. "So it's perfect for cops."

Downtown, at the Santa Barbara police station, Grafton meets up with Chief Cam Sanchez, a big fan of hers. He says most of the crimes in town are home burglaries: "We're talking computers, safes, priceless paintings."

For nearly an hour, Sanchez regales Grafton with stories about himself, his officers and unsolved murders. They commiserate over the cases that go unresolved.

"In real life, sometimes you know exactly who the killer is, and you can't arrest 'em or can't convict 'em, or you convict 'em and they get out on a technicality," Grafton gripes.

"And we've had that happen in Santa Barbara," Sanchez agrees. "You just go, 'Oh my god, the guy's walkin'.' And it is so frustrating."

Grafton says that's why she prefers her crimes fictionalized.

"An invented crime is more carefully thought-out," she says. "It has some intelligence to it, it has some cunning. It's still murder, but it isn't an alcoholic, impetuous crime of passion. Psychopaths are not interesting, because there is no reason for what they do. Usually with a homicide, somebody has a motive, if you can figure out what it is."

Before Grafton leaves, Sanchez asks her to critique the manuscript of a book he's writing — it seems everyone in town has a book in the works.

Idyllic Settings For Hideous Acts

We cross the street to Santa Barbara's elegant courthouse, a Spanish-Moorish landmark built in 1929, so Grafton can pay a visit to her friend, Judge Brian Hill.

"This is a spectacular courtroom," Hill says. "I mean, this is a courtroom that exudes justice and decorum and seriousness."

And maybe a little something else. Back in his chambers, Hill shows off a secret stash: a half-full bottle of Gentleman Jack Tennessee whiskey, which he found hiding in the bookshelves, buried behind the California Appellate Reports.

"Isn't it funny?" he asks. "Obviously there was some judge ... who liked to take a nip now and then."

I ask Grafton if that's the sort of thing she might put in one of her books.

"Naw," she says. "Nobody would believe it. It's like, 'Oh, Judge Hill, c'mon.'"

We chat about autopsies, overcrowded prisons and the Dodgers before Grafton bids Hill goodbye and tells him the next stop on our Santa Barbara tour is the Cold Spring Canyon Arch Bridge — "in case we want to throw ourselves off," she tells Hill playfully.

We drive up a windy road outside of town, to the highest arch bridge in California. It's a dramatic view, and a terrifying drop to the ravine 400 feet below.

"What an idyllic, beautiful place this is, and what a great setting for something as hideous as murder," Grafton says. "You know, the contrast between the two."

Grafton says she much prefers writing mysteries to the Hollywood screenplays she used to pen with her husband. I ask her if crafting so many murders makes her think about her own mortality.

"I haven't agreed to do that yet," she says with a laugh — meaning dying. "I know it's the general plan for humankind. But you know, I think it's really rude."

On the other hand, Grafton says she doesn't trust anyone who's always polite. She says everyone, including herself, has a dark side.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Summer at MORNING EDITION means Crime in the City. This is our series exploring the work of crime novelists and the places they write about. And today, we visit Santa Barbara, California. That beautiful city along the Pacific inspired the setting for author Sue Grafton's "Alphabet" mysteries. They feature one of best-known characters in modern crime fiction, Private Investigator Kinsey Millhone

NPR's Mandalit del Barco takes us to Sue Grafton's Santa Barbara.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Sue Grafton is a real hoot. In her native Kentucky drawl, she's just as likely to talk about her prized silver-coin mint julep cups, as she is a juicy murder mystery.

SUE GRAFTON: I always say to people: don't cross me, OK, because you will be so sorry. I have ways to kill you, you ain't even thought of yet.

BARCO: We're driving through gorgeous Santa Barbara, which in her novels Grafton calls Santa Teresa. As she writes: It's an artfully arranged Southern California town. Its public buildings look like old Spanish missions, private homes look like magazine illustrations; palm trees are trimmed of unsightly brown fronds, and the marina is picture postcard-perfect.

GRAFTON: And what better setting for murder and mayhem than a gorgeous town like this?

BARCO: Grafton used to think the beautiful views and temperate weather here were monotonous. But now she says she kisses the ground of her real life and fictional setting every day. The 73-year-old author calls herself the Goddess of Santa Teresa.

GRAFTON: Because I control the weather, I can move real estate at will. I can change the orientation of streets. And I am not only responsible for all the homicides, I am responsible for the solution to all those crimes.

BARCO: And this she does through her fictional alter ego, Kinsey Millhone, whose name, like Santa Teresa's, she lifted from the writings of hardboiled novelist Ross McDonald. Kinsey's a feisty gumshoe who cusses a lot and likes to eat peanut butter and pickle sandwiches.

GRAFTON: She's the person I might have been had I not married young and had my children. And I'm not an adventuresome sort. I'm terrified of violence. And if I'm stopped by the cops, I'm in a white hot sweat. She is also respectful of law and order, but she does break and enter. You know, but that's OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

BARCO: We head over to a Santa Barbara locale where Grafton's characters have met their demise. The long wooden pier at Stearns wharf is a tourist spot with restaurants, fishermen - even a psychic. It overlooks a scenic marina.

GRAFTON: This is called the Poor Man's Yacht Harbor, 'cause you can park out there for nothing. It is so much a part of Santa Teresa. I'll show you the marina where at the end of "J Is For Judgment," Renata Huff goes off.

BARCO: Grafton began writing her Kinsey Millhone mysteries in 1982, alphabetizing the title of each book with crime words, starting with "A is for Alibi."

GRAFTON: Alibi, burglar, corpse, deadbeat, "E Is For Evidence," "F Is For Fugitive," "G Is For Gumshoe," homicide...

BARCO: The latest is "W Is For Wasted." Grafton promises Z will be for zero. And she says after she finishes that novel she's taking a nap.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BARCO: To blow off steam, Kinsey Millhone likes to jog around the town's bird sanctuary. Every morning, Grafton takes a three-hour walk here and other nature spots. In her new book, she set up a fictitious hobo encampment here. And across the street is a Mexican cafe that's a hangout for police officers.

GRAFTON: You get a margarita there and you can hardly walk to your car. So it's perfect for cops.

BARCO: Downtown, at the Santa Barbara police station we meet up with Chief Cam Sanchez, who is a big fan of hers. He tells us most of the crimes in town are home burglaries.

CHIEF CAM SANCHEZ: We're talking computers, safes, priceless paintings.

BARCO: Sanchez regales Grafton with stories about himself, his officers and unsolved murders.

GRAFTON: In real life, sometimes you know exactly who the killer is.

SANCHEZ: Yeah.

GRAFTON: And you can't arrest them or can't convict them.

SANCHEZ: Right. Yeah.

GRAFTON: Or you convict them and they get out on a technicality.

SANCHEZ: Yeah.

GRAFTON: And...

SANCHEZ: And we've had that happen in Santa Barbara. And you just: Oh, my God, the guy is walking.

GRAFTON: I know. I know.

SANCHEZ: And it is so frustrating.

BARCO: Grafton says that's why she prefers to fictionalize her crimes.

GRAFTON: An invented crime is more carefully thought out, it has some intelligence to it - it has some cunning. Psychopaths are not interesting because there is no reason for what they do. Usually with a homicide somebody a motive, if you can figure out what it is.

BARCO: Chief Sanchez asks Grafton to critique the manuscript of a book he's writing. It seems everyone here has a book in the works.

Then we cross the street to Santa Barbara's elegant court house, a Spanish-Moorish landmark built in 1929. Grafton pays a visit to her friend, Judge Brian Hill.

JUDGE BRIAN HILL: This is a spectacular courtroom. I mean this is a courtroom that exudes justice, and decorum and seriousness.

BARCO: Then, in his chambers, Judge Hill shows off a secret stash he found hiding in the bookshelves.

HILL: And this is what I find.

(LAUGHTER)

HILL: Right here.

GRAFTON: Gentleman Jack.

HILL: Gentleman Jack.

BARCO: Yes, a half bottle of Tennessee whisky buried in the California Appellate Reports.

HILL: Isn't that funny? Obviously there was some judge in...

GRAFTON: Liked a nip, now and then.

HILL: Yeah, liked to take a nip, now and then.

BARCO: Is that the sort of thing you might put in your books?

GRAFTON: Yeah and nobody would believe it. It's like: Oh, Judge Hill, come on.

HILL: Yeah. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

BARCO: Before we leave Judge Hill's chambers, we chat about autopsies, overcrowded prisons, and the LA Dodgers, and our tour of Santa Barbara.

GRAFTON: Then I've got to get her up to Cold Spring Arch Bridge...

HILL: Oh...

GRAFTON: ...in case we want to throw ourselves off.

(LAUGHTER)

HILL: Don't even talk like that.

(LAUGHTER)

BARCO: We drive up a windy road outside town to get to the highest arch bridge in California, with a terrifying drop to the ravine - 400 feet below. It's very dramatic.

GRAFTON: I think so. What an idyllic beautiful place this is, and what a great setting for something as hideous as murder - you know, the contrast between the two.

BARCO: Grafton says she much prefers writing crime mysteries to the Hollywood screenplays she used to pen with her husband. I ask her if crafting so many murders makes her think about her own mortality.

GRAFTON: Yes and I haven't agreed to do that yet.

(LAUGHTER)

GRAFTON: I know it's the general plan for human kind. You know, it's this: I think it's really rude.

BARCO: Still, the opinionated Grafton says she doesn't trust anyone who's always polite. She says everyone, including her, has a dark side.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: And you can continue your visit to Sue Grafton's Santa Barbara through photos and excerpts at NPR.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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