You may be familiar with the extremely popular alphabet mystery series by Sue Grafton, which starts with A is for Alibi and ends at Y is for Yesterday, when the series ended with Sue Grafton’s death. I read the series this year and I enjoyed it. The main character, Kinsey Millhone, is a no-nonsense, witty, assertive, peanut-butter-and-pickle-sandwich-eating badass and private investigator.
And while I did enjoy the series, there is much to be critiqued. There are problems. You could say it is
p r o b l e m a t i c.
Because the term “problematic” can become partisan or dismissed as simply meaning “offensive,” let’s get clear on what it means. As simply as possible, problematic means presenting a problem. Olly Thorn adds that problematic means presenting a “social or political problem to do with some issue of fairness or social justice.”
It’s even more important to discuss the problematic nature of something that we like, or put another way, to critique our “problematic faves.” And Grafton’s series, especially the Kinsey character, and even larger—the genre of mystery—are many people’s favorites, including mine. I’m not saying don’t read these books; I’m saying when you read them, do so critically, aware of what injustices it may be reproducing. I hope this is a call that we do better moving forward in the genre.
There are many problems in Grafton’s series, including racism, copaganda, victim-blaming, and more, but I will discuss here: sexism, fatphobia, and classism (with a sprinkling of ableism and xenophobia). I write of these problems separately, but please know that they are inherently more complex and interconnected. The intersectional relationships between fatphobia and sexism or between fatphobia and classism, for examples, are extremely complicated.
S is for Sexist. How could a series that stars a hardboiled female private eye be sexist? And it’s true that when A for Alibi was published in 1982, it was groundbreaking: a lady private investigator? And written by a lady? The character Kinsey defied previous stereotypical and limited female roles in the mystery genre: either “femme fatale or corpse.” Throughout the series, because of her professional identity and career, other characters often assume Kinsey is a man, which she always sassily and satisfyingly rebuts. “Kinsey was a fictional alter ego for every shy woman who hesitated to talk back. Grafton said she counted herself among those shy women.”
But still, there are problems. In Y is for Yesterday, Kinsey believes, “The odd but unremarkable truth about women is we’ve had the aggression bred right out of us. Many of us are constitutionally unable to handle any kind of confrontation without bursting into tears.” This kind of generalizing about women as a whole is problematic in and of itself without regarding the intersections of gender, racism, disability, class, etc. It’s also problematic in regards to considering women as biologically weaker and that a “feminine” quality of expressing emotion during conflict is negative. Female characters in Grafton’s books, especially beloved Kinsey, regularly judge or comment on other women’s bodies or refer to other women as “bitchy.” Internalized sexism is readily seen when women habitually disparage themselves or other women, especially in regards to body-shaming them. It’s also seen in references to women as the “weaker sex,” which is, unfortunately, a surprisingly common theme in a series featuring a strong female main character!
And let’s talk about the trope of the strong female character, because that is harmful as well. Strong female characters might superficially seem feminist and anti-sexist, but it’s more complicated than that. What makes a female character “strong?” For a female character to be strong, it usually means she expresses masculine traits and eschews feminine ones. The problem is not masculinity, but rather that we associate strength with masculinity. Like other strong female characters such as Sarah Connor from Terminator 2, Kinsey reasserts masculine traits like having a willingness to commit gun violence; being tough and physically fit; needing to assert dominance in most situations; detesting stereotypically feminine interests like fashion, cooking, and make up—just to name a few. The work here is to change the way we see strength, to see strength in typically feminine traits or feminine expression. The response to the damsel in distress trope of the past isn’t to create harm as an overcorrection to the strong female character trope.
F is for Fatphobic. [content warning: fat-shaming, weight] As someone who has struggled with disordered eating and body image, Grafton’s series was often difficult to read. Diet culture and fat-shaming feature as main characters of the series in their own right, unfortunately. Kinsey is constantly exercising to “stay slim,” analyzing the calories of every food, skipping meals or bingeing on junk food, and making harmful judgments and evaluations of other characters’ bodies. If you share the same struggles with diet, weight, and shame as I do, I might recommend skipping this series entirely.
Personally upsetting to me was Grafton’s descriptions of Kinsey’s friend Vera Lipton’s body. From books B through J, Vera is described with words like “big” and “bulky.” In J is for Judgment (how fitting), Kinsey says, “She’s a big gal to begin with: maybe five feet ten, 140 pounds on a good size frame. She’d never been apologetic about her generous proportions.” As a woman who is exactly five feet ten myself, 140 pounds is not remotely “big.”
Especially concerning and harmful is how Grafton writes about a fat and lonely hotel clerk named Arlette who tries to argue for body acceptance:
“Fat is beautiful, Kinsey,” she said to me confidentially as I filled out the registration card. “Looka here.”
I looked. She was holding out her arm so that I could admire the hefty downing of excess flesh.
“I don’t know, Arlette,” I said dubiously. “I keep trying to avoid it myself.”
“And look at all the time and energy it takes,” she said. “The problem is that our society shuns tubbos. Fat people are heavily discriminated against. Worse than the handicapped. Why, they got it easy compared to us. Everywhere you go now, there are signs out for them. Handicapped parking. Handicapped johns. You’ve seen those little stick figures in wheelchairs. Show me in the international sign for the grossly overweight. We got rights.”
Her face was moon-shaped, surrounded by a girlish cap of wispy blonde hair. Her cheeks were permanently flushed as though vital supply lines were being dangerously squeezed.
“But it’s so unhealthy, Arlette,” I said. “I mean, don’t you have to worry about high blood pressure, heart attacks…”
“Well there’s hazards to everything. All the more reason we should be treated decently.”
What’s frustrating to see in this excerpt is Arlette arguing for fat acceptance and an end to fat-shaming, which I wholly support. However, Grafton presents it embedded in disgusted and judgmental descriptions about her body, which makes Arlette’s claims seem foolish and absurd. Not only is there fatphobia is this short quotation, but also sexism and ableism.
We know that fat-shaming, especially embedded in concerns about “health,” like Kinsey claims in the above excerpt, only do more harm than good. Shaming people for being fat by claiming you do so for their health not only doesn’t reduce their weight but actually leads to unhealthy outcomes: both increased disordered eating in response to public shaming, and rejection and the significant mental health tolls the shaming takes on our bodies.
Sure, A is for Alibi was published in 1982, at the height of diet culture, the low-fat movement, and a time where fat-shaming was common (and unfortunately still is today). The book does reflect the culturally acceptable beliefs and behaviors of the day. However, there are 26 books in the series written over three decades, with the final book being published in 2017. Yet, diet culture and fat-shaming is a huge ongoing theme that never gets corrected or addressed. It doesn’t matter if Grafton shares these fat-shaming beliefs with Kinsey or if she is writing them as solely belonging to Kinsey—the harmful consequences are the same.
C is for Classist. Kinsey (and arguably by proxy, Grafton) really hate poor and homeless people. Grafton’s series is rife with classism, which is the “systematic oppression of subordinated class groups to advantage and strengthen the dominant class groups. It’s the systematic assignment of characteristics of worth and ability based on social class.” Not only does Grafton write Kinsey into being in awe of rich characters’ homes and fashion, but she writes about homeless and poor characters and their associated negative qualities in extremely harmful ways.
A theme of the books places the responsibility on individuals instead of systems and structures: “bad apples” in the police force instead of structural problems with policing, criminals who “choose” crime instead of structural problems that leave them desperate, fat people who “choose” to be fat instead of the stronghold of food engineering and advertising. Likewise with classism. However, homelessness is not an individual’s failure—it is a structural failure of the society. Yet, Grafton continually writes that being poor or homeless is a personal lifestyle choice rather than being a victim of mental illness, poverty, and capitalist structures designed to keep people in poverty and out of homes. Even though homeless characters in W is for Wasted work heroically and without pay for Kinsey to solve that book’s case, she continually assesses them as smelly, unhygienic, and morally weak for living in poverty and having substance addictions.
In an intersectional medley of oppression in Y is for Yesterday, fat and homeless woman Pearl comes to live with Kinsey’s kind neighbor. Kinsey tells Pearl she is both taking advantage of the neighbor and illegitimately receiving disability support. Though Pearl’s hip is broken, Kinsey saw her hanging clothes on a clothes line and therefore believes Pearl is faking it, which is extremely offensive and harmful. Kinsey says, “Little sympathy I had for moochers and human parasites.” It should go without saying that no oppressed human deserves to be called a “parasite.”
Grafton writes a scene in V is for Vengeance that is an interesting and disturbing intertwining of classism and ethnocentrism, which entails the evaluation of other cultures as inferior to one’s own. Throughout the series, Kinsey disparages Rosie’s homemade Hungarian dishes as “repulsive” and focusing on animal parts typically considered “disgusting” in xenophobic perspectives. “By the time she finished telling me how tender the feet should be… my eyes were beginning to cross.” Kinsey more than once through the series spits out Rosie’s lovingly prepared meals. Such an ongoing “joke” throughout the series made me cringe every time. We get it: “foreign” food is gross and weird—ha ha. Pearl and another of her homeless friend are the only characters in the series to genuinely enjoy Rosie’s cooking, relating their subordinated social class with the unimaginable enjoyment of “gross” foods and lack of taste.
Grafton’s series itself won’t change as the years go on, but our reading of it will change, because we change with times. A 2020 reading of the series shows some of the problems and perpetuated harm still present in the series. So, read the series with a critical eye.
Better yet—if you’re a fan of mystery, crime fiction, and thrillers and are willing to join me, let’s read some incredible books from LGBT+ and mystery writers of color. Both of these groups have largely been historically excluded from the mystery genre. A classic psychological thriller written by lesbian writer Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley is gripping, suspenseful, and existential. New publications by black women mystery writers like My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite and When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole are fun and creative tales that seek to disrupt the status quo rather than perpetuate it.
And if you can’t get enough of a series featuring a hardboiled protagonist, check out Michael Nava’s series featuring a gay and Latino defense lawyer named Henry Rios. Nava’s queer framing of the mystery and crime genres challenge what we expect.
Maybe it’s time to get some new favorites.