It's 16 down and 10 to go. Sue Grafton is working her way through the alphabet with the mystery series featuring private investigator Kinsey Millhone, and this month she follows O is for Outlaw with her latest release, P is for Peril. Coming up with plenty of title possibilities for the letter "P" was not a problem for this prolific author.

" 'O' was tricky," Grafton explains, "but when you come to 'P,' you've got poison, pistol, peril, persecute, prosecute, prison, police, whatever -- you can go on and on."

Just don't ask her what the book is about, because she candidly admits in a phone interview from her home in Louisville, Kentucky (where she was born and raised) that she's "already forgotten it."

"I'm on to the next one," she says, "and my only survival skill is to delete from my brain anything that doesn't exactly pertain to the book I'm working on."

More on Q is for . . . to come, but right now we'll give the rough cut for Peril. At the center of the mystery are Dow and Crystal Purcell, a quintessential California couple: he, elderly and wealthy; she, cute, tanned and curvaceous, not to mention 40-odd years his junior. When Dow goes missing under mysterious and sinister circumstances, Kinsey Millhone is called in to investigate . . . by Dow's ex-wife, no less.

Grafton's latest possesses all the humor, charm and attitude that have compelled readers to show their devotion to the feisty P.I. by naming their daughters in her honor. "Originally they were naming their dogs and cats Kinsey, so I think I'm moving up the food chain," she laughs.

Grafton admits she based her character on herself. "Kinsey Millhone is my alter ego," Grafton says. "She is the person I might have been had I not married young and had children, so it is fun that I get to live her life and mine."

For several years, Grafton was living a life neither she nor Kinsey would have wanted. Grafton had moved to Hollywood after college and for 12 years she made her career in TV writing. The only problem was, she hated it.

"I knew I had to get myself out of Hollywood because it just did not fit me at all," she says. So she took the advice of her father, an attorney who wrote mysteries on the side, and started plugging away at A is for Alibi. Five years later, she finished it and four months before it was published, her father died.

"I never got to sit down and ask him about plotting and how to come up with good premises. He was a whiz at it, but we never got to talk shop," Grafton says. And since Grafton is determined not to repeat herself in any of her storylines it would have been nice to have some help on the road to Z is for Zero.

"I thought they'd get easier; I thought after eight or 10 letters I'd get the hang of it. But I am convinced there are 26 things to say about homicide," she says determinedly.

We promised to get back to "Q," and while Grafton won't give away any plot secrets ("never talk about a work in progress"), she will say that she has chosen Q is for Quarry as the title, "both the sense of rock quarry and in the sense of hunted," she explains.

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