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THE BOOK BEAT SUE GRAFTON : Mystery Town : Whodunit author Sue Grafton lives in Santa Barbara and sets her tales in Santa Teresa.

May 23, 1991|TODD EVERETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You won't find Santa Teresa on a map of Southern California, but any reader of Sue Grafton's popular series of books featuring fiercely independent female private detective Kinsey Millhone can tell you where it is. It's a beachside town just north of Ventura County, with a university campus nearby, several luxury hotels, and the main drag is called State Street.

Indeed, "Santa Teresa" sounds a lot like Santa Barbara. And, once you discover that Grafton lives in Santa Barbara, there is enough circumstantial evidence to get the author to 'fess up.

"I did retain the name State Street," she admitted the other day. "But for other streets and areas, I do a variation. Anapamu Street, I call either Via Madrena or Via Madrone, I can't remember. I call Montecito 'Montebello,' not realizing when I named it that there is a real Montebello, a quite ugly one, in Los Angeles County. Goleta, I call 'Colgate' "

Why the deception? "I call it 'Santa Teresa' to avoid lawsuits from people who might claim I was writing about them," Grafton explains.

"Also," she adds with a chuckle, "I tell my friends that I consider myself the goddess of Santa Teresa--I can control the real estate, the weather. . . . I am also responsible for the town's soaring crime rate."

The name is also something of a joke between Grafton and mystery fans and a tribute to one of her predecessors: "Santa Teresa" is what another Santa Barbara author of detective novels, the late Kenneth (Ross MacDonald) Millar, called his hometown.

Grafton will be in Santa Barbara and Ventura bookstores on Sunday, concluding a promotional tour for the two most recent Millhone novels.

Last year's " 'G' is for Gumshoe," was just released in paperback by Fawcett Crest, and the brand-new " 'H' is for Homicide," published by Henry Holt & Co. is already in the top 5 on national and The Times' local lists of bestsellers.

The alphabetically named series, which began in 1982, is gaining popularity so quickly that even Grafton is surprised.

"Earlier in the tour, I did a signing at Chaucer's bookstore in Santa Barbara," she says, "and sold 274 copies of 'H' in one sitting. That was more than the total number of (hardcover) copies of 'G' the store had sold during the year it's been out. The store had ordered 300 copies of 'H,' thinking that it would last them the year. While I was still signing, I spotted the owner on the phone, frantically trying to round up more copies."

Before creating Kinsey Millhone, Grafton had written several television movies, four--including two Agatha Christie adaptations--with her husband, Steven Humphrey. She's also written two novels: "Keziah Dane" (1967) ". . . was about a women with seven children, living in a riverbed during the Depression."

The second, 1969's family feud fable "The Lolly-Madonna War," was published only in England and subsequently adapted (in part by the author) to a film inexplicably retitled "Lolly-Madonna XXX."

Says Grafton with a shudder, "I tell friends, 'if you care about me at all, switch that off the minute it comes on your TV set."

Still, Grafton and Kinsey are assured of running the full course of 26 books. Explains the author, 51, "Kinsey ages one year for every 2 1/2 books, and has just turned 33. When we get to "Z' is for Zero,' she'll be 40, and we're gonna party--she'll want presents."

Fans are beginning to name their cats, dogs and even children after the wisecracking P.I., Grafton says. Also, Kinsey has been making cameo appearances in other authors' crime novels. In a book called "Double," Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller's detective spots Kinsey at a convention in Chicago. Sara Paretsky's detective, V.I. Warshawski, wishes at one point that her business records were as organized as Kinsey's.

One thing that sets Kinsey Millhone apart from many fictional private detectives is her relationship with the police department. Herself a former cop, Kinsey has relatively few run-ins with the constabulary.

"For one thing," Grafton says, "I'm a great fan of the Santa Barbara police force. I am always careful in these books to portray the police as hard-working, intelligent and competent, which they are. The police I've met always seemed to be very capable individuals. They know that I have a lot of respect for them, and that I also try to be fairly realistic in my portrayal of a private investigator.

"I've done a ride-along with the cops," she says, "have gone through the coroner's office . . . they're very generous with their time. In the new book, I credit Steven Stone, presiding judge of the Ventura County Court of Appeal. He had come through a book-signing line in Montecito and offered help, any time I needed information. And he was very helpful."

Ventura County has so far made only cameo appearances in Grafton's novels, as Kinsey drives through on her way to someplace else. But that situation may change.

"My son, Jay Schmidt, lives in Ventura, and he's been trying for years to get me to set one of the books there. " 'I' Is for Innocent" is about a third of the way through, and it takes place in Santa Teresa, so it may be a while, yet.

"I can't tell what the story will be, or how it will be set in Ventura, but I can sense the aura. When I drive around Ventura, I can feel the history of the old town, it has kind of a pull for me.

* WHERE AND WHEN

Sue Grafton will sign copies of her books this Sunday from noon until 2 p.m. at Waldenbooks, 1027 State St. in Santa Teresa-er, Santa Barbara. Call (805) 966-7382 for further information. That evening from 5-7, Grafton will be at the Ventura Bookshop at 522 E. Main St. in Ventura. Call (805) 643-4069.

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