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

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

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

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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.

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