Thursday, July 29, 2010

It All Started When...

When did you first get interested in reading mysteries? Did you start reading them when you were a child? Were you an adult? Which mystery author really “got you going?” I’ve been thinking about this question as I’ve been reading the wonderful 9mm author interview series that Craig at Crime Watch has been sharing with us. One of the interview questions asks the author to share the first book she or he remembers reading and enjoying. It’s an interesting question because research shows convincingly (at least convincingly to me) that children who read early in life are more likely to become avid readers later in life. If that’s true, it makes sense to provide children with habit-forming books if we want them to become addicted to reading.

Sometimes, crime fiction lovers get “hooked” by a series that wasn’t specifically written for young people. For instance, many schools’ Language Arts education programs include at least some of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. That’s, in fact, how I first encountered Holmes. The first Holmes story I read was The Adventure of the Red-Headed League, in which Mr. Jabez Wilson accepts a very unusual job offer. He’s engaged to copy the encyclopedia. He’s been led to believe that this job is provided for him by a group called The Red-Headed League. When he goes to work one day and finds workplace locked up and a sign announcing that the red-headed league is disbanded, Wilson goes to Sherlock Holmes to help him unravel the mystery. Holmes finds that a gang of bank robbers has been using Wilson’s pawn shop as the jumping-off point for a tunnel they’re building to break into a nearby bank.

Agatha Christie’s novels weren’t specifically written for children, either; however, they, too, are included in several schools’ Language Arts curricula. One of her novels that students study is Murder on the Orient Express, in which Hercule Poirot takes a three-day journey through Europe on the famous Orient Express, only to get drawn into a murder investigation. Wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett is stabbed on the second night of the journey, and Poirot is asked to find the murderer as quickly as he can. The goal is for him to tell the police who board the train at the next border who the murderer is.

Students also study Christie’s And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians), which was said to be Christie’s favorite. In that novel, ten disparate people are brought to Indian Island, off the Devon Coast. They’re each lured there in a slightly different way and when they arrive, they discover that they’ve been brought there for a specific purpose. Each is accused of being responsible for at least one death. On the first night of their stay, one of the guests is poisoned. Then, later that night, there’s another death. It’s soon clear that there’s a murderer on the island who’s targeting each guest; now, the survivors work desperately to stay alive and avoid being the next victim.

The first full-length Agatha Christie novel I read was Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, in which Hercule Poirot investigates the death of a charwoman whom everyone thinks was killed by her unpleasant lodger. I first read that one as a young teenager and I still have the habit ; ).

There are other examples, too, of course, of crime fiction novels that are not specifically geared towards children, but that “hook” young readers. There are also lots of books and series that are aimed at young people. One of the most enduring is the Nancy Drew series. Written by a number of authors under the name Carolyn Keene, this series features Nancy, the teenage daughter of attorney Carson Drew. Since 1930, when The Mystery of the Old Clock was published, the series has undergone several changes, mostly to make it appealing to new generations of readers. Today, the Nancy Drew series remains one of the most popular mystery series for young readers.

The Hardy Boys mysteries have also enjoyed enduring popularity. This series, created by the same book-packaging company that created the Nancy Drew series, features Frank and Joe Hardy. They’re the teenage sons of detective Fenton Hardy and his wife, Laura. Beginning with 1927’s The Tower Treasure, the series has been beloved for generations. Part of the reason its popularity has continued is that, like the Nancy Drew series, the Hardy Boys mysteries have been extensively rewritten to reflect changing times and values.

Beatrix “Trixie” Belden is also responsible for addicting many young people to crime fiction. She’s a teenage sleuth who lives with her parents and three brothers in upstate New York. Together with her best friends Madeleine “Honey“ Wheeler and Diana “Di” Lynch, she investigates cases as a part of a group called the Bob-Whites of the Glen. The Trixie Belden novels were originally written by Julie Campbell Tatham, but after the sixth novel, they were written by various authors. The last original Trixie Belden novel was published in 1986, and for quite a time, the series was out of print. Some of the books were re-released a few years ago, and it’ll be interesting to see whether new generations of readers find Trixie appealing.

Since 1963, Donald J. Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown series has also been drawing new young readers to the mystery genre. Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown is the son of the police chief of fictional Idaville. In these mysteries, the reader solves the case along with Brown, and the key to the cases is a wrong fact or inconsistency somewhere in the story. The reader is invited to spot that mistake and use it as the key to the solution. In the “Answers” section of the Brown mysteries, the amateur sleuth himself explains the solution and points out that key fact. These books, more than some others, encourage the reader to “play armchair detective.”

The Boxcar Children series, created by Gertrude Chandler Warner, is focused on not just one or two, but four children. Siblings, Henry, Jessie, Violet and Benny Alden were placed in the custody of their grandfather when their parents died. They thought he would be cruel to them, so they ran away from the orphanage where they lived when they found out he was to be their guardian. The children find an abandoned railway boxcar where they live until Violet becomes ill, and they need to take her to a doctor. The doctor realizes that these are the missing grandchildren of John Alden, who’s both wealthy and kind, despite what his grandchildren thought about him. So the doctor unites the family, and the Alden children go to live with their grandfather, who moves their boxcar to his back yard for them. The Alden children solve mysteries both at home and while they’re away on holidays.

There are also several more recent mystery series aimed at young people. David A. Adler, for instance, has created two mystery series, among his other writing. One is the Cam Jansen series, which features the adventures of Jennifer “Cam” Jansen, a young amateur detective who has a photographic memory that she uses to solve mysteries (hence the nickname). Adler’s other series is the Bones series that features young Jeffrey Bones. He uses deduction, a decoder, and other “spy tools” to solve mysteries. What’s interesting about Adler’s series is that they’re written at a few different reading levels, so that even very young or struggling readers can enjoy the stories.

Bill Galvan’s Scrapyard Detective series is also aimed at young readers. This series is focused on a group of middle school students who’ve formed their own club – The Scrapyard Detectives. They take their name from their meeting place, which is the scrapyard owned by the father of one of the main characters. These stories center on local mysteries that the group solves. Those mysteries are at the center of the stories, but the stories also have lessons integrated into them.

These are just a few examples of the many mysteries and detectives stories that have been responsible for addicting young people to crime fiction. How did you get “hooked?”


  1. Yes, I started with reading Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew and the Babysitters Club. Then I went through a period where I never read much (I think high school) until my sister said I should read the book - And Then There Were None. That got me started on AC. I read them as I read most mysteries. In order of publication. I went through and read all 66 of her books and loved them all. Then I received a copy of all of Sherlock Holmes and went through them.


  2. Clarissa - Ah, I see you got addicted to Agatha Christie when you were young, just as I did. Her books are habit-forming, aren't they? And I was turned on to Agatha Christie by a sibling, too; I got copies of >Mrs. McGinty's Dead and The Man in the Brown Suit for a birthday one year, and never looked back... It's funny; I read some Nancy Drew, too, but not much of the Hardy Boys.

  3. I can't remember if it was Doyle's A Study in Scarlet or one of Poe's Auguste Dupin tales. Too long ago.
    But I did enjoy the Hardy Boys later, along with a whole host of others--John Dickson Carr, Sax Rohmer, Leslie Charteris, etc., etc.

  4. John - Oh, yes, I read Auguste Dupin stories, too, at about the time I was beginning to read the Sherlock Holmes novels; I wonder if a taste for those two kinds of books goes together... And thanks for mentioning John Dickson Carr and Leslie Charteris; they're also friends of mine from years back...

  5. My mom taught me to read my Golden Books -- I think because she got tired reading to me over and over.
    Our town librarian started me off with Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden and the Hardy Boys. I'd finished them off by age 9 or 10. Then came Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes (which I reread all the time). Pretty much now it's everybody and anybody in the genre.
    But Christie and Holmes are always close at hand.

  6. Mary - I know exactly what you mean about keeping Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes nearby. I do precisely the same thing : ). And I've re-read my collection a number of times; doesn't matter, though, because I still enjoy them.

    When I read your comment about your mother reading to you, it reminded me of how much research there is that supports reading to children a lot. Your mom did a good thing...

  7. Hardy Boys...then some compilation of Hitchcock-type-Poe-esque short stories that were my father's. (The HB books were Daddy's, too!) Then Christie...then straight to modern fiction! Wow--parents play such a huge roll.

    Southern City Mysteries

  8. Michele - Oh, yes, parents definitely do play a crucial role in what we read, don't they? I think that's interesting that your father got you interested in the Hardy Boys. Very cool! I like it that you've read a lot of short stories, too; there are some excellent crime fiction short stories that can really get kids interested in crime fiction.

  9. Karen - Oh, absolutely!!! I read more than one of those great Bobbsey books.

  10. I too was indoctrinated into mystery reading at an early age - a combination of my mother and a local librarian made sure of it. I read most of those mentioned here - Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, Trixie Beldon, Hardy Boys - do Enid Blyton's Famous Five and Secret Seven count? Cos I read them too. My first 'adult' mysteries were Ms Christie, Rex Stout and Dick Francis - they were the ones that the librarian thought suitable for a child of my tender years (I wasn't yet a teenager by the time I'd read all the available mysteries for kids that our library had). Even when I was studying 'proper books' at University I never stopped reading crime fiction - and once wrote an essay about the works of Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton that my tutor grudgingly gave a good mark to - though she really didn't consider genre fiction to be proper reading. I gave up studying English lit. at that point :)

  11. Enid Blyton, it was that did it for me. Do you even read Enid Blyton in the US? I got a copy of "Five go off in a Caravan" when I was seven, and by the time I was nine, I had finished all the Famous Fives, Secret Sevens and Five Find Outers. Five Find Outers was the best of the lot - five kids who band together to become detectives and solve various crimes in the neighbourhood - that is where I learnt about clues and suspects. About interviewing witnesses and checking alibis - it was great fun.
    By the time I got to Nancy Drew (I do believe I've read most of her adventures several times) and Hardy Boys, and then to Dame Christie and Sherlock Holmes, I was hooked.

  12. My interets in crime fiction was developed thanks to the following authors: Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie, Patricia Highsmith, Manuel Vazquez Montalban and Henning Mankell.

  13. Bernadette - LOL! I must admit I'm not surprised about your reaction to English lit. I'd have loved to read your paper, too. It's funny you would mention Enid Blyton; I think absolutely that those books count as mysteries, although not everyone agrees. It sounds as though you've been addicted as long as I have to reading mysteries; when I read your post, I thought about trips I took as a child to our library, and bringing home Nancy Drew, The Bobbsey Twins, and later of course, Dame Christie and all the rest. For some of us, the addiction starts early... ; )

    Rayna - How interesting that you grew up reading Enid Blyton, too. I hadn't thought about what an education those books are when it comes to clues, suspects and all the rest of it, but you're right; you can learn a lot. It sounds as though you got "hooked" as quickly as I did, too. Like you, I was hopelessly addicted before I was a teenager because of books like the Nancy Drews and so on. And after my first Agatha Christies, there was no hope for me ; ).

    Jose Ignacio - What fine authors! I think, too, that they've inspired not just generations of readers, but also many, many authors. When I read interviews with authors where they are asked which writers inspire them, names like those are there quite frequently.

  14. It's strange but I can't really remember who or what first inspired my interest in mysteries. I do remember that when I was little my Mother and her best friend collected all of Earle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason books so maybe that it was. Good post.

    Thoughts in Progress

  15. Mason - Thanks : ). Somehow, in your case, I figured Perry Mason must have been in there somewhere ; ). It's interesting to think about what draws us to mysteries, isn't it?

  16. I started off with Nancy Drew and I think I read most of them. I do remember wondering when I was about 10 or so, how anyone could write a book that WASN'T a mystery - I couldn't understand how there could be a plot! Agatha Christie books were my relief during the university years - I was reading so many plays and history texts that her books were a wonderful holiday.

    Of course, over the years I've read books in all different types of genres, but as a writer, it's mystery plots that seem to pop into my head. There are days when I wish I could write 'Important Literary Works' but I guess I'll stick to what I know.

  17. I was always an avid reader from about age four, but never focused on a sub-genre (or know what they were). I got hooked in high school when I read "The Adventure of the Speckled Band." I'd enjoyed mysteries before that--like the Hardy Boys, but Sherlock hooked me.

  18. I was a very late reader starting with Enid Blyton, Capt WE Johns 'Biggles' books, Tom Merry school stories, and then on to Conan Doyle. But not Holmes, I read his Brigadier Gerard stories, Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel, and Alexandre Dumas all by the age of twelve. Then on to Sapper and John Buchan, Sherlock Holmes, but by then I had to work harder at school and university and reading for leisure was a dream.
    I always remember that at school we were discouraged from reading our famous alumni, Raymond Chandler [presumably because he was American in Hollywood and wrote crime fiction] and PG Wodehouse [because of his controversial wartime broadcasts] while the less well known CS Forester and AEW Mason were pushed as good reading material.

  19. I also began with Enid Blyton, and when I was young, I mostly read series I´d call cozy mysteries (or at least not very gory).

    I think you´d like this post I wrote last year:

  20. I too began with Blyton. Then it was Captain W.E. Johns' Biggles books, before I moved on to Christie.

  21. Elspeth - I know exactly what you mean about "literary work." Mysteries are just naturals for plots. You've got all kinds of characters, you've got a major event (a murder, theft, etc.) as a plot, and you've got all sorts of opportunities for twists and turns and so on. What more to want? ...and I read my share of Nancy Drew, too : )

    Terry - I didn't really think about (or understand) subgenres when I was young, either. I read in different categories, but it wasn't long before I zeroed in on mysteries. I'm glad you mentioned The Speckled Band. What a great story! No wonder it hooked you : ).

    Norman - Ah, another Enid Blyton reader : ). Interesting how many people have started with her books, late or not. It's also interesting that you didn't start with Conan Doyle's Holmes stories. He's so closely associated with Holmes that it's hard to remember that he wrote other stories, too. I didn't read as much at university, either, as I wanted - I mean leisure reading - because, like you, I was busy with studies. Sad, in a way, because there is so much I'd have liked to read. And thanks for the insights about Chandler, Wodehouse et al. Such a different perspective that I hadn't thought of. It does remind me, though, that when I was at university, all students were required to read a novel by one of our university's alumni. Interesting how schools choose to do or not do that.

    Dorte - I think Enid Blyton would be gratified to know how many avid readers she "hooked." : ). And thank you so much for that link. You're right - a delightful post!

    Martin - Ah, so Blyton and "Biggles" were your gateways as well? ; ). I haven't done the research, but I wonder if there's a connection between the first books one reads and one's later taste.

  22. What an interesting question. I am intrigued by the number of readers who mention Enid Blyton. I also read Enid Blyton so maybe that's a link, although I suspect that they may be simply the earliest books that people read... Dorothy Sayers was an early influence as was Ngaio Marsh and,of course, Agatha Christie. I loved the early books of Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky - the intimate, confiding first person narrative of their books came as a revelation to me. (Why am I talking about all women writers? I do read at least as many men.) I personally think that the best writers are writing crime fiction. But it's all in the definition: you will remember P D James talking about Jane Austen's Emma being an early example of the detective novel: the seriously misdirected heroine and the large trail of red herrings. I have re read Emma in the light of her comments and she is spot on.

    Terrific post thank you.

  23. Sue - How kind of you :). You could certainly be right that people just simply began reading with Enid Blyton and that that's the connection to being a crime fiction fan. It would be interesting to do a real study on that question...

    I'm also glad you mentioned Dorothy Sayers; I've liked her work for a long time, too. And I'm intrigued by your point about the best writers being crime fiction writers. There is some truly exceptional crime fiction out there, no doubt at all about that. It is hard, sometimes, to draw the line between "literary" fiction and crime fiction. As you remind us, Emma could be seen as a detective novel. And there's certainly a list of crime novels that arguably count as literature.