Sue Grafton died a month or so ago, and it’s left me feeling oddly bereft. She’s best known for writing the funny, smart and very successful Kinsey Milhone mysteries. Some people refer to the books as the alphabet series, because she begins Kinsey’s adventures with A is for Alibi, which first appeared in 1982, and progresses through the alphabet. Now, sadly, it ends short of completion with Y is for Yesterday, published in 2017.
Of course, I don’t feel the same searing sorrow at Grafton’s passing that the death of a family member or a close friend would bring—I never met Sue Grafton, never even saw a live interview with her. And yet, I do feel a loss. I’ve experienced that same sensation at the passing of other favorite authors—Robert Parker, Ruth Rendell, Reginald Hill. I’ve finally realized that it isn’t actually the death of the author I mourn, it’s the end of their characters. Because they, not their authors, are the friends that I’ll miss.
I won’t ever know what happens to Kinsey Milhone. Does Henry continue to be her steady and sure father figure? Does she ever truly reconcile with her unexpected family? I won’t be able to see what Ruth Rendell’s wise and clever Inspector Wexford is doing in retirement. I can’t follow the further adventures of the irascible and not-fit-for-polite-society Superintendent Andy Dalziel and his more sophisticated but less intuitive underling Peter Pascoe. Nor will I learn how Pascoe’s precocious daughter Rosie grows up. In the case of Robert Parker, because the family has chosen someone to continue the series, I could check in on Spenser. But I won’t, because no matter how skilled the substitute writer, I’ve never found any that really capture the voice and spirit of the author they’re trying to emulate.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy stand-alone books—To Kill a Mockingbird, Possession, Pride and Prejudice, A Prayer for Owen Meany—are among the favorites I happily return to. But, I really commit to a mystery series. I like the sense they give of restoring order in a disjointed universe. I enjoy the intellectual pull of the puzzle and the satisfaction of seeing things resolved, for good or ill. But equally engaging to me are the worlds my favorite series authors create. And it’s always a pleasure to discover a new one. Louise Penny, who writes a mystery series set primarily in a small village in Canada, explores in lovely, lucid prose not only the investigation of a murder in each book but the ongoing interplay of characters and the ebb and flow of their lives. I look forward to going back to Three Pines the same way I look forward to catching up with old friends.
So, when a favorite author like Sue Grafton dies, I have to say goodbye not just to one person, but to an entire group of friends. I can rekindle memories and enjoy the pleasure of their company by rereading, but it’s a bittersweet experience. Like looking at photos or family videos when the people in them are gone.
A friend pointed out that when a writer doesn’t bring a series to completion, it allows us to imagine whatever adventures or endings we’d like for our favorite characters. Unlike in real life, the people in books don’t have to die. They can live on in our imaginations. We can choose to believe that things end happily for the characters we care about, and there’s no author to contradict us.
I suppose that’s true. Still, I’m going to miss Kinsey and the immersion in her world that Sue Grafton provided, as I miss Reg Wexford, and Andy Dalziel, and many other characters whose stories ended too soon for me. But, there is one thing an avid reader can take comfort in—there are always new characters and new worlds to explore.