MYSTERY WRITER SUE GRAFTON was a third grader in Louisville, Ky., when she first encountered the sort of mean streets that her Active private eye Kinsey Millhone now prowls in her novels. Walking to school each day, Grafton, a self-described "timid, good girl," had to get past sixth grader Hunter Thompson, who, she recalls, "hung out at Otie Forbes's drugstore smoking cigarettes in a cracked leather jacket." Thompson and his cousins got their kicks by riding their bikes up the backs of Grafton's shoes. "It was treacherous," she says with a laugh, remembering the "wicked and sinister" young Thompson—who became the gonzo journalist. "No wonder I needed therapy in later life!"

As a grown-up, Grafton not only got analyzed, she learned to get even. In 1982 the crime writer notched up her first bestseller when she took revenge on her second ex-husband in A Is for Alibi, offing the character she loosely based on him. Since then, each new letter in the alphabet mystery series—which has sold more than 7.5 million copies in the U.S. and has been translated into 24 languages—has taken her to greater heights and other places. The latest entry, L Is for Lawless, winds up in Louisville, the scene of her troubled childhood, of her upbringing by alcoholic parents. This literary homecoming follows a real-life return to her home turf. Two years ago, Grafton, 55, and third husband Steven Humphrey, 44, who live in a fashionable enclave of Santa Barbara, Calif., bought a 10-room English Tudor retreat in Louisville, where they spend four months of the year.

"For a while, Kentucky was off-limits for me, too full of torture," says Grafton. "When we would come back, there would be a well of sorrow because I realized my parents were gone and there was no way to go back and make any peace." But in 1993, on a trip to her alma mater, the University of Louisville, Grafton, the twice-divorced mother of three and grandmother of two, felt an urge to put her past in order. "Emotional injuries require a sort of revisiting," she explains. "An old ghost will haunt you wherever you go, so you might as well take it straight on."

Her father, lawyer and mystery novelist C.W. "Chip" Grafton, liked to take it straight up—toasting each morning with several shots of whiskey. Sue remembers her mother, Vivian, "generally flat on her back in the living room smoking cigarettes, reading paperback novels and also drinking whiskey."

But they did pass their love of books along to their two daughters. "We had a revolving rack in the house where my parents would keep paperbacks under labels: dirty, dull or good. They were freethinkers and allowed us to read anything we wanted." But reading "was our way of not having to be together," adds Grafton, who roamed freely at a young age. "If it hadn't been for Sue, I'd have been bored to death," says her childhood friend Judy Joseph Crippin, recalling how they would forage for junk in alleyways, pretend they were homeless and roast hotdogs over burning leaves or act out plays from Grafton's scripts. "She had an unbelievable imagination," adds Crippin. "She would tell spooky stories until we were scared half to death."

Grafton traces her interest in medical procedures, which sometimes figure in her novels, to her mother's frequent hospitalizations as a result of alcoholism-induced malnutrition. Later, Vivian developed throat cancer, and, on Sue's 20th birthday, died from an overdose of barbituates. "I never blamed her," says Grafton, who is close to her older sister Ann, a retired librarian in Cincinnati. "I only had anguish in that she died with our relationship in such turmoil."

Grafton also regrets that she never discussed her father's writing with him. Her husband, Humphrey, contends that Chip, who was unable to make a living from his mysteries and died in 1981, "did not teach Sue how to be a writer but taught her about rejection and to keep trying." In 1961, Grafton left for Hollywood, where she began writing at night when her children were in bed, and, after penning two novels, worked 15 years as a screenwriter. She met Humphrey, also a screenwriter, in 1974, when they lived in the same West Los Angeles apartment complex. He now manages his wife's career and their household and reviews her manuscripts. "I earn my keep by patting her on the shoulder, saying, 'There, there,' " he says fondly.

The couple, who have been married for 17 years, describe their Kentucky home (which Grafton furnished from a Pottery Barn catalog and a one-stop shopping blitz at Williams-Sonoma) as "our playhouse." It has a lap pool, a wraparound view of gardens and forest, a player piano and an antique pool table. "Coming to Kentucky was a way of embracing the good," Grafton says. "It's wonderful here. The smells, the sounds. That's a part of my childhood that I can take back."

JANE NICHOLLS
BONNIE BELL in Louisville

  • Contributors:
  • Bonnie Bell.