48 pages 1 hour read

Sue Grafton

A Is For Alibi

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1982

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Summary and Study Guide


A is for Alibi (1982), written by Sue Grafton, is the first book in the Alphabet Mysteries series, featuring private investigator Kinsey Millhone. In the novel, Millhone, a former police officer, is hired by a woman who claims she was wrongfully convicted eight years ago of murdering her cheating husband.

The Alphabet Mysteries series redefined the role of women detectives in 20th-century literature. The novel is a police procedural that touches on themes such as the dynamics of marriage, the societal expectations placed on women, justice and wrongful imprisonment, and truth and deception. The novel served as a foundation for a series that found a dedicated reader base.

This guide is based on the 2005 St. Martin’s Paperbacks edition.

Content Warning: This guide includes discussions of suicide and violence present in the source text.

Plot Summary

In A is for Alibi, the protagonist, private detective Kinsey Millhone, takes on a seemingly unsolvable eight-year-old murder case at the request of recently paroled Nikki Fife. Although unsure of the impact she can have on such a cold case, Millhone is swayed by Nikki’s earnest plea to clear her name after being convicted of murdering her husband eight years ago. Nikki, maintaining her innocence, had harbored the hope of finding a detective willing to unearth the truth about her husband’s death once she was out of prison. Despite her reservations, Millhone agrees to reinvestigate, driven by the slim chance that there might be overlooked evidence proving Nikki’s innocence.

To start her investigation, Millhone seeks assistance from her old acquaintance Detective Con Dolan, who facilitates her access to the case files. Millhone learns that the victim, Laurence Fife, was poisoned with the rare toxin powdered oleander, a cause of death eerily shared with a young accountant in Los Angeles who died just four days before Laurence. While Millhone sees this as a potential lead pointing to a serial killer and supporting Nikki’s claim of innocence, Dolan perceives it as evidence of Nikki’s involvement in both crimes. Despite the divergence in theories, Millhone becomes staunchly dedicated to uncovering the true perpetrator, a commitment intensified when a potential witness, Sharon Napier, is suddenly killed. The death stirs a sense of responsibility in Millhone, as she had missed a scheduled interview with the victim on the day she was murdered.

Millhone’s investigation leads her to various locations, including Las Vegas and the Salton Sea, where she encounters issues that complicate her theories. Initially, both Millhone and law enforcement had surmised a single killer was behind the two poisonings. However, the in-depth investigation propels Millhone to contemplate the existence of two separate murderers, further reinforcing her belief in Nikki’s innocence. Throughout this personal journey, Millhone develops a bond with Nikki and her son, who is deaf, while also navigating a romantic relationship with Charlie Scorsoni, a man entangled in the web of suspects.

The breakthrough in the case occurs with the revelation that Laurence’s first wife, Gwen, was indeed responsible for his poisoning. Yet this discovery rapidly leads to a tragic end, as Gwen is killed shortly after the unveiling of her crime, pulling Millhone’s focus toward Charlie, whose criminal undertakings stretch beyond mere embezzlement. Charlie had been siphoning funds from the estates he was representing legally, a fraud discovered by another victim, Libby Glass, whose silence he secured through murder.

As Millhone edges closer to the truth, events take a frantic turn. The discovery of a damaged black Lincoln, the vehicle involved in Gwen’s hit-and-run death, at the residence of Charlie’s law partner, John Powers, places Charlie squarely as the culprit. This leads to a chase ending in a confrontation at a garbage dumpster on a beach, where Millhone is forced to shoot Charlie, bringing his murderous spree to a definitive end and vindicating Nikki.