My first book is coming out in the winter of 2015. For the publishing industry and the world at large it will be, I know, just another business day. For me it will be the culmination of a life-long dream. I’ve been doing a lot of looking back lately, at my admittedly strange life and how I reached this point; where I came from and where I hope to be going. It’s been a long journey. One thing I’ve been thinking about is, I’ve been trying to remember the first mystery I ever read. I can’t say for certain now* but I think it quite likely that it was either
I do, however, remember vividly the first mystery to make a profound impression on me. Mom bought it for me at the old Walmart store, when it was in Eastgate Shopping Center. I can still tell you where the book department was in the store and where the book was in the department. If I close my eyes I can see it on the shelf. The price sticker was a little, black circle in the upper right-hand corner with a gold border and the price ($1.95) in gold numbers.
I must have been six or seven — younger than eight, I know. I started reading obnoxiously early and by the time I was eight or nine I was reading as many adult books as children’s (though I never did stop loving children’s books). This book caught my attention immediately. Already, “mystery” was a magic word for me, and this book had that magic word right there on the cover. The Mystery of Cabin Island. The picture on the front showed two teenage boys (“big kids” like my own teenage siblings) hiding behind an evergreen, peering across a winter landscape at a snow-covered cabin. Who were they? What were they doing? What was in the cabin? What was going on? I wanted to know! The back cover said the Hardy Boys books were for “boys ages 8 to 13” and I was neither a boy nor in that age range, but Mom was always lenient when it came to books so she let me get it anyway.
So I got it. And I read it and I loved it. But the thing that was a real revelation for me was that it was part of a series. There were more books — LOTS more — with the same characters and settings and more mysteries. I was in little kid book heaven. With the closest (in age) of my siblings being nine years older than me, I was, for all intents and purposes, an only child. We lived miles from any other children my age and much of my youth was spent largely in isolation. My friends lived in the pages of books. Characters in series could be best friends, because they came back to visit again and again.
For years I devoured every Hardy Boys book I could get my hands on, and from there I moved on to other series, both children’s books like the Rick Brant Series, the Ken Holt series, Trixie Belden, and Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators (to name just a few) and adult books. My parents both loved to read, too, and Mom always looked for books at yard sales and auctions. Reader’s Digest Condensed Books were popular back then, with two to four (maybe five?) novels in each volume, and we wound up with boxes of books they put out for a special mystery-lover’s club. Thus it was easy to progress from The Hardy Boys to Nero Wolf and Ellery Queen, Miss Marple, Campion, and Lord Peter Wimsey.
There’s a long article at Wikipedia about the history of the Hardy Boys if anyone’s interested. Reading it was … actually, a bit depressing. I know they were far from perfect books, with simplistic plots and characters and a persistent problem with racist stereotypes (which were, honestly, more a comment on the time they were written than on the books themselves). But they were also an important and beloved part of my childhood and of my education as a writer. It was while reading about iceboats in The Mystery of Cabin Island that I determined to take information wherever I found it — something I still try to do. (I’m pretty sure I was the first kid in my grade to know the word “sleuth”!) And much of what I learned about character, plot, and story structure I can trace back to those books. If Joe finds an amulet under the floor boards of the old house in chapter three, there damn well better be an explanation for it by the final line of chapter twenty!
In 1987 the Powers That Be launched The Hardy Boys Casefiles — a dark, violent series that began by blowing Joe’s girlfriend Iola Morton up in a car bomb and saw the boys carrying guns and killing people. At that point they lost any magic they still held for me and I haven’t looked at a new Hardy Boys book since. But there will always remain, in my imagination’s memory, a place where I stand on Shore Road above Bayport and watch the distant lights of the Sleuth and the Napoli racing off through the darkness on some endless adventure.
*I have a very vague memory of a series of mysteries for beginning readers. They were slender books in hardback with a keyhole on the cover and I believe they were about three or four children — siblings, maybe? I cannot, for the life of me, remember enough to pin them down. Do they sound familiar to anyone?