Sue Grafton followed the alphabet all the way to the New York Times best-seller list.
Beginning with "A is for Alibi,'' Grafton wrote a string of mystery novels featuring the street-smart, sassy detective Kinsey Millhone. Now Grafton's latest, "I is for Innocent'' is No. 3 in Sunday's Times hardcover best-seller list, and the previous "H is for Homicide'' is No. 2 on the paperback list.
But that doesn't mean Grafton, who was in Lawrence on Tuesday night to sign books and meet her fans, can rest on her accomplishments. She's at work on the "J'' book, and she thinks constantly about the next plot twist.
"Every day of my life, I worry,'' Grafton said in a Tuesday interview. "I wake up in the night worried about the next sentence.''
THE FANS gathered early in the evening at the Raven Bookstore, where Grafton held court at a table in the back room. Even as she spoke to a reporter, she was signing copy after copy of "I is for Innocent.'' Is that tiring? You bet.
After a signing's over, she said, "I cry like a baby. They have to give me an IV.''
Like mystery writer and Lawrence native Sara Paretsky, Grafton writes about a woman detective with a spartan lifestyle. The character appeals to an extremely loyal audience, many of whom came early to the Raven to stand in line.
"Kinsey is a strong woman,'' said Marcia Westfall, a Kansas City, Kan., resident waiting to get Grafton's autograph. "She's very independent, and she gets things done.''
GRAFTON WAS raised in Louisville, Ky., and now lives in Santa Barbara, Calif. Interestingly, her father, C.W. Grafton, also wrote a series of mysteries whose titles were taken from successive lines of a nursery rhyme.
"There were eight books in the series,'' she said. "The last one was unfinished. I've thought about finishing it. I would have Kinsey Millhone find this manuscript of a dead writer and on his behalf try to solve the case. Then I would be like Natalie and Nat King Cole.''
The inspiration for the alphabet series came, she said, from macabre illustrator Edward Gorey's alphabet book. Another mystery author had a string of short stories with alphabet-ordered titles, Grafton said, so she doesn't take credit for inventing the idea.
She invented Kinsey Millhone because she could identify with a woman detective.
"WHEN I started `A is for Alibi,' I didn't know anything about private investigators, forensics or the California criminal code,'' she said. "The one thing I knew about was being female.''
When she's not on book tours, Grafton tries to write seven days a week. She doesn't work off of extensive outlines; she knows generally where she wants to go and then tries to get there.
After the failure of the Hollywood Pictures film of "V.I. Warshawski,'' based on Paretsky's novels, the film world may not be eager to bring Kinsey Millhone to the screen. That suits Grafton just fine.
"It makes no difference,'' said Grafton, who wrote screenplays before beginning the Millhone series. "The one thing I learned was that you never sell them anything you care about because they'll mess it up. The better it is, the more they mess it up.''