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"F" is for Fugitive by Sue Gratton Holt,261 pages, $15.95. THE RECENT RISE in popularity of the private eye novel is one of the phenomena surrounding that mystery form. Another is the number of women investigators and women writers entering the genre that for so long was exclusively a male preserve.

P.I. Kinsey Millhone and her creator, Californian Sue Grafton, are arguably the best of these distaff invaders of the hitherto sacrosanct turf of gumshoes Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer, invented by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald.

The 32-year-old, twice-divorced Kinsey Millhone, an ex-cop who tools around L.A. in a dented VW Beetle and occasionally packs a Davis .32 handgun, is an engaging detective-for-hire. She's as professional, resourceful and quietly courageous as any of her male fictional counterparts. And womanly intuitiveness and sensitivity are there to assist her where female relationships -- as in " 'F' is for Fugitive" -- are crucial to a crime's solution.

The newest Millhone has her sifting through long-hidden family and community connections in an effort to clear a man who has just recanted his 17-year-old confession to the murder of a woman in a tiny Pacific resort town.

Grafton names her Kinsey Millhone novels -- this is the sixth -- for letters in the alphabet (" 'A' Is for Alibi," " 'B' Is for Burglar", etc.). Each also deserves a special "E" -- for excellence.

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