Monday, July 14, 2014

The Evolution of a Mystery Reader

Have you ever wondered why you enjoy reading the books that you do? I'd never really given it much thought until lately. There are times that I do like to sit and contemplate my navel, but it's always been about some emotional upheaval I'm enduring, never about books. Books are a part of me, no matter what genre they belong to; they're just... me. But not all that long ago, a husband sat near a group of us female crime fiction readers, and it was obvious to me that he simply did not understand why on earth we loved reading mysteries so much. And that made me wonder why I do-- and have done for several years now.

It didn't always used to be that way. The very first books I loved to read had titles like Arty the Smarty and Hurry Up, Slowpoke!, and my favorite: Sylvester the Mouse with the Musical Ear.

Animal stories were the loves of my reading life when I first began to read on my own. Arty was a whale, Slowpoke was a mouse with no sense of urgency, and Sylvester was a mouse who moved from the country and eventually found his perfect home in a Stradivarius violin. But it wasn't long at all until I'd moved on to stories with a lot more pages.

I fell hard for the animal stories of Thornton Burgess, a naturalist and conservationist. Sure, his stories for children had animals talking and wearing human clothes, but it's amazing how much I learned about a wide range of wildlife-- and how much I loved those stories.

I think the last time anyone had ordered children's books for our village library was in the late 1940s and early 1950s. When my mother took over as librarian, one of the first things she did was begin ordering new books for us young'uns, but she started with the youngest ages first. Once I'd gotten beyond the musical mouse, I had to move on to those "old" books, so it was Thornton Burgess-- and you wouldn't believe how quickly I gobbled them up! Come to think of it, many of them had little mysteries that had quite a lot to do with animal behavior, so I was learning about wildlife and getting a beginner's taste of crime fiction all at the same time.

Once past Burgess, I moved on to Walter Farley and Marguerite Henry because I was horse mad, but those little "why's" that Burgess asked had whet my appetite for more. I still gobbled down horse tales, but I was also devouring the Childhood of Famous Americans books that Mom had begun ordering for the library. Those books covered just about everyone you could think of (and a few you couldn't), and I'm pretty sure they're responsible for fostering a love of history and biography that lives within me to this day. One of the things I loved most about them was the fact that they didn't just tell me about white Americans; they taught me about African and Native Americans as well.

But-- like I said-- those Burgess "why" stories made me want to wander further afield, so what's any young book lover going to do when she's looking for mysteries? That's right-- check out Nancy, Frank, and Joe!

Now I was a tomboy back then. (I'm still not anywhere close to being a girly girl, but that's neither here nor there.) I tried reading the library's Nancy Drew books, but I just couldn't stomach how Nancy was always donning a fresh frock and jumping into her roadster. (Hey, I'm a baby boomer, they hadn't updated her yet!) Without even stopping to take a breath, I grabbed a Hardy Boys mystery off the shelf and began to read. Now I was getting somewhere!  Frank and Joe's adventures were much more interesting to me, and I read them all.

However, it didn't take me long to read my way through all of them, so I was back to looking for something new to satisfy my craving. I'd discovered that I really liked stories in which there was a why and a how and a who that I needed to figure out. What did I do?

I headed up the aisle to the adult mystery section, that's what. Mom hadn't had a chance to upgrade that section too much, and mostly the shelves were filled with Golden Age mysteries. I tried Agatha Christie, and I tried Erle Stanley Gardner because I liked watching Perry Mason on television, but I just didn't enjoy them. They just seemed "old" to me, and the language didn't sound quite right, so I had to find something else with which to satisfy that endless craving. (What I do have to admit is that-- although I've tried these authors and others of the same era repeatedly-- I still do not enjoy them, so it wasn't simply a matter of my being too young for the books. To each her own, eh?)

Okay, the mystery section of the library let me down, so where did I head next? Mom steered me in the direction of historical fiction and of Gothic novels, and I was off to the races again. I don't think I was officially a teenager yet, but Mom knew me and she knew the books, so there wasn't any danger of me reading something too adult for me.

Mom liked Gothic novels, too, and when we'd read all the ones the library had to offer, we would borrow my grandparents' car to go to Decatur where there was a shop that let you trade in your paperbacks. Back then, a lot of paperbacks sold for 50¢ or 75¢, and if you found a good place to trade them in, you weren't spending a lot of money-- which is something Mom and I had to take care not to do.

Phyllis Whitney and Dorothy Eden were two of my favorites, and even though most of the covers showed some long-haired busty girl in a high wind on the cover, this tomboy could care less. I was drawn to the houses and the castles they were standing in front of because it was all about the house and the mystery to me. Romance didn't even figure in my world-- other than to say, "You nitwit! He's the bad guy!" occasionally when the heroine was particularly dim-witted and fell in love with the killer.

Then there came a drought of several years while I went to college and overdosed on the greats. I soon switched majors to English literature, was taking a course load of at least 20 credits per semester and working, so I didn't have time for much reading past Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Stendhal, Dickens, and dozens of assigned others. To be honest, I didn't miss mysteries; my eyes were opened to so many literary wonders that I became a classics glutton-- and a bit of a book snob. (Shame on me!)

Once out of college I found myself reading a lot of historical fiction, biographies, and history. It wasn't until the facts about serial killer Ted Bundy started coming to light that my reading tastes began to change. When I read about the day Bundy was trolling for victims in a Salt Lake City shopping mall that I had liked to frequent when living there, I looked through the journals I kept-- and discovered that I had been in that mall on the same day at the same time as Bundy. Chills ran down my spine. Why did he choose that girl instead of me? What was there about her that made her the target of a killer while I eluded his net? (Do not get me wrong: I was ecstatic that I'd escaped his notice!)

This also reminded me that I'd lived about six blocks away from where Gary Gilmore had ruthlessly gunned down a motel clerk. To this day, I've never seen or heard a bigger collection of emergency vehicles than I did that night. So... I'd come close to the orbits of two killers. A lot closer than I ever wanted to be, and that jumpstarted a whole lot of why's, most particularly why do people do things like this?

Once again, I turned to books for the answers I was seeking, and that led me to Ann Rule. Ann Rule had no idea that her career in true crime writing would begin by working a suicide hotline with Ted Bundy, but it did, and my eyes were glued to the pages of The Stranger Beside Me. Rule is still one of my favorite true crime writers although I seldom read in the genre any more.

Another favorite was Vincent Bugliosi, whose depiction of the Manson family was chilling. Helter Skelter read like the best fiction. I read a lot of true crime in the next few years, and I learned a lot about why and how and who. But I reached a saturation point at just how much of the human mind's darkness I could deal with, and I turned back to my favorite historical fiction, biography, and history books.

It wasn't until a fateful trip to a local Waldenbooks in the mid-1990s that my reading habits would begin to make a more permanent turn to crime. Why? Because someone had shelved two books that many would consider to be mysteries in the fiction section of the bookstore. As I browsed the shelves looking for some new historical fiction, I was drawn to two books...

Although normally not a cover junkie, my eyes were drawn to the cover of James Ellroy's The Black Dahlia, and the synopsis intrigued me. The book was based on a true story, so I wouldn't be reading the facts and nothing but the facts, ma'am; I would be reading someone's interpretation of the crime. For some reason I liked that idea. Maybe it was because it put me at a remove from the darkness.

As I was walking back down the aisle to pay for Dahlia, another book jumped out at me: The Concrete Blonde, Michael Connelly's third Harry Bosch novel. Both books were paid for and taken home with me.

I read and enjoyed The Black Dahlia, but when I began reading about Harry Bosch, I was in love. "Everyone counts, or nobody counts"-- Harry Bosch's credo-- is one that I firmly believe myself. When I finished reading The Concrete Blonde, I turned to the pages in the very front and back of the book and discovered that this wasn't the only Harry Bosch book. I quickly went back and bought the rest. Harry Bosch was the very beginning of my enduring passion for crime fiction-- although I did have one more slight detour into the history and fiction of World War I.

I consider all those true crime books I've read to be a strong foundation for my love of crime fiction. Through them, I'm very familiar with motivations, police procedures, criminal law, and how trials work. But I just don't enjoy being immersed in the dark, depressive reality of it anymore. I know it exists, but now I prefer it in fictional form so I can bury myself in the characters and the language of a story.

Has my mystery reading changed in recent years? Just a little bit. I've moved further away-- but not completely-- from noir, I read a few more traditional (cozy) mysteries, and now the crime fiction I read is set all over the world instead of mostly within the borders of the United States. Not only do I still want to figure out why and how and who, but I also want to learn about the social customs and history of as many other places on this planet as I can.

How about you? Have your reading tastes evolved over the years? Any idea why or how? See? I always need to know the answers to questions, questions, questions. I must have driven my mother insane!


  1. Cathy - What a great post! And you reminded me of authors such as Whitney whose work I used to read. It is interesting how we evolve as readers isn't it? But that makes sense, since (I hope!) we evolve as people, too. Oh, and I love that 'photo of you reading as a child.

  2. I never really liked Agatha Christie when I was younger. I always had the sense that she was deliberately holding information back so you would never have the chance to beat her to the solution of the mystery.

    My childhood reading, what I can remember of it, involved everything Walter Farley I could get my hands on, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, Marguerite Henry, and Gothics, entered through Phillis Whitney's Airs Above the Ground because it involved a horse. I also read science fiction, as well as books in the Tarzan series by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I also went through a period of reading romances, thankfully short-lived. I enjoy reading history, but usually only in subjects I'm interested in writing about. I've read The Man in the Iron Mask and related Musketeer books, but not the Three Musketeers. The Count of Monte Cristo, Scaramouche, and other similar books made it onto my list, but many classics didn't because they didn't interest me. Most of the books I really enjoyed had a mystery aspect to them, whatever genre they were in. It was, perhaps, only natural that I'd go that direction when I started writing.

    1. I remember Airs Above the Ground, but didn't Mary Stewart write that one? Hmm...Google tells me so. Funny how I moved from horses to creepy houses and castles.

      I have to admit that-- as long as this post is-- it's still an abbreviated version of my evolution because I also read science fiction (loved Dune). Studying for a degree in literature meant that I read a lot of books that I wasn't necessarily interested in at first, but I did enjoy most of them, and they opened doors to all sorts of magic (like Dumas). Eesh, I left out Michener, too! Too late to go back now! LOL We share a lot of reading DNA, Pepper.

    2. Erm...oops. Lol! Should have googled it.

    3. A friend once asked me how I could have a mind like a steel trap when it came to book titles and authors-- especially when I hadn't read the books. The only thing I could think of was: "I guess shelving books for years drilled all that stuff into my head!"

  3. What a wonderful question to ask yourself. I'm not sure I could do such a good jo be explaining my live of mysteries though. I've always liked them, some of the first books I really remember loving were the Nancy Drew books. By 5th grade, I couldn't get enough Agatha Christie.

    1. You know, sometimes I think there's something wrong with me because I don't really care for Agatha Christie. Then I pick up a book and forget all about it. ;-)

  4. Your mention of Helter Skelter reminded me that I read it in a campground beside Lake Michigan in early January in an 18' camper which wasn't adequately heated (while Dave was nice and warm in an outboard motor class). One night there was one other person staying there, otherwise I was alone, cold, and getting the heebie-jeebies as the wind blew. The only plus? The ladies room was heated and had hot water.

    1. I was reading Helter Skelter at about 3 AM when a tree branch tapped against the window. Since I was reading one of the parts about how Manson and his followers would break into a family's house while they were asleep and creep around, when that tap on the glass came, I jumped so high I almost cracked my head on the ceiling fan!

  5. You were so cute with that book! I adore seeing photos of children today riveted to books. And I'm so glad that I give neighbors' and friends' children books -- and then see them enjoying them. It's great to know one is helping steer a child to the joys of reading.

    I read a lot as a child, but particularly loved the Beverly Clearly books about Ramona Quigley. She was a tomboy and very independent. Then I read some biographies and then got into the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew's books.

    My family then moved, so I was subjected to schoolmates' book interests, some of which weren't up to my parents' standards. I was reading good adult books by 13, as I remember reading Upton Sinclair's The Jungle at that age, and becoming a vegetarian for awhile. When my parents objected to me reading a rather trashy book my schoolmates were reading, I read it anyway. I was 15! But I decided it was trash and never read that type of book again.

    But at that age, my father, who read mysteries, introduced me to Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe and Perry Mason. We avidly watched the TV show and every other legal drama.
    And I read some Agatha Christie books, but at 19 I decided that her books had anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant biases so I stopped reading the Hercule Poirots I had liked. (My grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Russia so I couldn't tolerate Christie's viewpoints.)

    In high school I read seirous books by Steinbeck, Dreiser, Zola and some mysteries.
    I don't seem to have read for awhile, but when women writers began turning out books, I started reading tons of books about the women's movement or written by well-known women writers and activists. I read books by Marge Piercy, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, others. And over the years, I have read many.

    But when I had a computer and began reading blogs by readers and found the crime fiction readers' the most interesting, my interest was rekindled -- although I had read Sara Paretsky's Sue Grafton's and Marcia Muller's series all along. I loved those books, especially Paretsky's.

    But the Internet has expanded my horizons. I've learned of so many books and read way out of my comfort zone, although I hate brutality and gore. And in 2011 I did the Global Reading Challenge hosted by two reader/bloggers and read so many excellent books.

    And I now spend so much time reading great blogs that I'm not reading as many books, that and getting older has slowed down my reading. While a teenager I read several books a week; then in the last few years, two a week was doing well. And my reading has slacked off, but I'm getting my mojo going again.

    1. One of the things that's so great about this post of mine is that people like you are sharing your own evolutions with me, either here in the comments or via email. I love discovering how people's reading tastes have developed over time. Thank you so much, Kathy!

  6. Your welcome, Cathy. I also love reading about other people's reading histories.

    The post motivated me to recall my reading history, how I'd go to the library every Monday with my father and take home an armful of books, most of which I'd read. And, I got into the habit of staying up way too late reading and I had a hard time getting up for high school or I'd go on little sleep. I just could not put the books down!

    I'm still like that if I've got a good book. Oh, I left out an important writer for me, Barbara Kingsolver, whose fiction I have read, all of it, and whose last three novels are at the top of my favorites.

    1. I left out a few of my own favorites, Kathy, but I didn't want to turn the post into War and Peace! ;-)

  7. War and Peace? Anna Karenina maybe? Or one of Tolstoy's short stories?
    It's always fascinating to read other readers' history, interests, favorite authors, etc.
    Why else do we turn on the computers and read people's blogs? To read their reviews and opinions and experiences.
    Meanwhile, I look at the Sylvester book, which I'd not heard about, and want to find it for my four-year-old sweet little guy neighbor. If I can, even a good used copy would do.
    So glad you have it here.

    1. Some of the favorites I left out of this post have already been mentioned in previous posts. Others are so obscure that I've had trouble finding information about them to share.

      You wouldn't believe how much it would please me to know that another four-year-old is enjoying Sylvester's story. I loved that mouse!

  8. I'm going to try to find Sylvester -- and not for a king's ransom either. I see it sold as a collectible for a fortune. But a good used copy would work. And I know a two-year-old who might like it in a year.

    When I was little, I liked The Pokey Little Puppy and a book whose name I can't remember about a squirrel family that lived under a huge tree -- and ate dinner together at a big table. And I borrowed Peter Rabbit from my neighbor and loved it.

    1. It's absolutely ridiculous how much some sellers charge for books. I obviously don't have the collector's obsession, nor do I have the collector's wallet!


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