In a far corner of the warehouse, back in the dust and shadows, there are some books I haven’t seen or read in more than four decades. I no longer remember the plots or characters or dialogue, but I do remember the pleasure of reading them. Sometimes I wonder: Did those books start my interest in detective stories, or was I drawn to them because I already had a fascination with dark secrets and the way those secrets might be revealed?
I don’t know; that’s one mystery the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew don’t seem up to solving. Maybe a bit of both. Between the ages of 8 and about 12, I devoured as many of those books as I could find at the Carnegie Library in Kalispell, Mont. — dozens of each, I’m sure. It wasn’t until I was a young adult that I discovered, to my annoyance, that there was no such author as Franklin W. Dixon or Carolyn Keene. But by then I had gone on to darker fare: Raymond Chandler, John MacDonald — even a bit of Mickey Spillane.
I know: a middle-aged man’s recollections of his halcyon youth can get tiresome real fast. And I know without having to reread them that most of those early teen-detective series were, and remain, mostly crap. But I believe that for better or worse, they helped form one habit I can’t help but appreciate: reading a book in bed each night before going to sleep. They’re not always crime novels and some have been masterpieces — I was unable to sleep for a couple of nights after finishing “In Cold Blood” when I was 16. It remains one of the most chilling things I’ve read. I wept on my pillow after “To Kill a Mockingbird” — although, come to think of it, that could almost be crime fiction too: a secret revealed after a alleged rape, two homicides and a harrowing assault on a child.
My adult children are all avid readers, and I like to think it’s because I encouraged them to be at a very early age. If they ever get around to thanking me for it, I’ll just tell them to thank Frank and Joe Hardy instead.