Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Way of the (Detective) World


HANK:  I love Charles Salzberg, and he knows it, and I love his books. But what I didn’t know, until he sent me this blog, was what he had written a non-fiction book with another of my idols, Soupy Sales. I burst out laughing simply thinking about Soupy, and I bet Charles has all the scoop.  But I guess that’s a different blog.

How’d you decide to write crime fiction? I asked him. And, like everything Charles writes, that turned out to be a great story.


How I Became a Crime Writer and Stayed That Way
           --Charles Salzberg

It was an accident. Not the kind of accident where anyone gets hurt. The kind of accident where something happens that’s totally unplanned and unpredictable. It was an accident that changed my life. For the better, as it turned out.

Let’s start at the beginning. Not the beginning like when God created the heavens and the earth. The beginning as in when I had to decide how I was going to make my way in the world.

 First, the decision.

That was the easy part. I was going to be a writer. I was never without a book and as a shy kid, someone who didn’t make friends easily, an unhappy kid who wanted to live in a happier world, books and movies were the perfect refuge.

The only thing better than reading a book, I thought, was creating one.

I even knew what kind of writer I wanted to be. Like Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Vladimir Nabokov, Dostoevsky, John Updike. The serious literary ones, who wrote interesting characters who led interesting, complicated, often tortured lives.

But making that happen wasn’t so easy.

After tackling my first novel at the age of 12—it was a roman a clef based on sleep-away summer camp (half a dozen single-spaced pages which I still have)—I became an English major in college.

But life got in the way.  I had to make a detour into law school. Then another detour into teaching in a special school for delinquent kids.

One thing led to another and soon, to put food on the table, I began writing nonfiction books. Some of them my own, many of them collaborations, some of them even ghostwritten by me. And all the time I kept working on and finishing novels. But although they were praised for style and the characters, no one wanted to publish them. Why? Because they weren’t commercial. Or, as one professor and novelist not so gently informed me, “You write that psychological crap, like Dostoevsky, Nabokov and Bellow. Don’t you know what a story is?”

I took the first part as high praise. I took umbrage to the second, Of course, I knew what a story was.  But to me plot wasn’t all that important. Maybe that was the reason I wasn’t having any luck getting published. Maybe I ought to concentrate on plot instead of style and character.

So damnit, I’d show them. I’d write a novel and plot the hell out of it. I’d write a detective novel, because I couldn’t think of any genre in which plot was more essential.

And so I immersed myself. I read everything I could: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Rex Stout, John D. MacDonald, James M. Cain, Mickey Spillaine, Agatha Christie, Charles Willeford, Jim Thompson, Ross MacDonald. I came away in awe and with a newfound respect. There were talented writers in that group, and though their work was carefully plotted, they hadn’t given up style and character.

I was heartened and a little nervous. Would I be able to pull it off?

Then I found there was not so much a formula involved in writing detective fiction, but certain assumptions in the genre.  That the world usually begins as an orderly place. And then a crime is committed and the world is no longer orderly. It’s shaken to its core and becomes downright chaotic. Along comes the detective whose job it is to make the proper connections by following the clues and solving the crime, which ultimately puts that world back into place.

I began by creating a prototypical American detective. Henry Swann is a loner, living on the margins. He carries a heavy burden—his wife was killed in a freak accident and he gave up his son to his in-laws. He’s a skip tracer, even lower than a private eye. And he is low on the moral scale, willing to do just about anything for money. One day a beautiful, wealthy woman (this is the way most classic detective novels begin) appears in his office in a rundown part of town and hires him to find her missing husband. Within a day, he finds her husband has been murdered. So she then hires him to find out who killed him and why.

But here’s where I veered away from the usual detective plot. I created a corpse who had different identities, and Swann has to figure out who this man really was as opposed to who killed him. And Swann does not solve the crime himself. In fact, I turned the detective model on its ear by creating a world that didn’t make sense, where the clues didn’t add up to solving the mystery.

What I didn’t bargain for was that no one would publish the book that way. “People who read detective novels want the detective to solve the crime,” I was told, “and if they don’t they will be disappointed. The novel sat in a drawer for twenty more years, before I pulled it out, updated it, and showed it to an editor. He loved it, but said he’d only publish it if I changed the ending. By that point, you might say I’d outgrown my principles and said, “sure.” Thus was Swann’s Last Song born.

As I began to work in the genre I realized crime novels aren’t just about murder. They’re about life and only sometimes death. I was really writing about human nature. And then I realized--all good writing necessitates an element of mystery. If I can’t make you want to turn that page to find out what’s going to happen next, then I’m not a successful writer.

I also made a conscious decision that murder wasn’t going to be the focal point. Instead, I would write about all the other crimes that happen. How many of us are touched by murder? Very few, I’d guess. But crimes of the heart? Theft? Fraud? Lying? Cheating? Aren’t these crimes?

 A whole world opened up to me as a result. I wasn’t a crime writer. I was a writer who happened to write about crime. And if you think about it this is true of all the great crime writers out there. They’re not writing about crime. They’re writing about us. The best of us. The worst of us. Every one of us.

HANK:  Loved this book! So Reds, do you remember the book that hooked you on crime fiction? Either as a child, or a teenager, or an adult?

  

CHARLES SALZBERG is the author of the Shamus Award-nominated Swann’s Last Song, Swann Dives In, Swann’s Lake of Despair (re-release Nov. 2016), Devil in the Hole (re-release Nov. 2016), Triple Shot (Aug. 2016), and Swann’s Way Out (Feb. 2017). His novels have been recognized by Suspense Magazine, the Silver Falchion Awards, the Beverly Hills Book Award and the Indie Excellence Award. He has written over 25 nonfiction books, including From Set Shot to Slam Dunk, an oral history of the NBA, and Soupy Sez: My Life and Zany Times, with Soupy Sales. He has been a visiting professor of magazine at the S.I. Newhouse School of Communications at Syracuse University, and he teaches writing at the Writer’s Voice and the New York Writers Workshop, where he is a founding member.



55 comments:

  1. Charles, what a serendipitous accident!
    I’m looking forward to reading your Henry Swann stories . . . .

    Hank, I can’t say any one particular book hooked me on crime fiction. I read Sherlock Holmes, Nancy Drew, Agatha Christie . . . and I was hooked.

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    1. Thanks so much, Joan. And as far as what hooked me on crime fiction, I remember as a kid taking the bus down Madison Avenue (in New York City) to a discount bookstore on 23rd Street, where I could find all kinds of books for a buck, many of them mysteries, most of them by names of writers I never heard of. Amazingly, because I never throw books away, I've still got many of them, books with titles like, "Murder in Fiji."

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  2. Interesting story about how you came to write crime fiction, Charles. I have an eARC of Swann's Way Out that I plan to read this month.

    Hank: No one particular book, but I started reading the Golden Age mystery authors (Allingham, Christie, Marsh, Sayers) from age 11 and never stopped.

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  3. I think all good writing tells a compelling story about interesting people, and that applies to fiction, non-fiction, feature stories for the Sunday supplement, or program notes for a concert. I look forward to reading Charles' work.

    As for getting hooked on crime fiction, I can not only pinpoint a specific book, I can name the "dealer" who gave me that first, delicious taste: my mother. Mom was always a great one for encouraging me to read, and I must have had my own library card by the time I was three. Three year olds don't read a lot about murder, but by the time I was eight or nine--long graduated from the picture books--Mom gave me a book for Christmas that she said she had read as a child and loved. She thought I would like it, too. It was that Nancy Drew classic, "Secret of the Old Clock." Before you knew it, I was saving all my allowance for the next Nancy Drew, and haunting the library for quick hits of John Creasey. Then came Sherlock Holmes, and by high school I was mainlining Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh. These days I read a lot of Charles Todd, Alan Bradley, Julia Keller, and all of you wonderful Reds. I tell myself I can quit any time I want to but, let's be honest. Who wants to?

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  4. Welcome Charles, so enjoyed your essay! Your story makes me wonder whether it's really much harder to write a great book as a younger person. Maybe we have to get knocked around a bit before our minds and hearts are ready to tackle the job?

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    1. I think it's tough to write a great book at any age, it's just that when we're young we think we've written a great book (at least I did). I started my first novel when I was 12. It was a roman a clef, about a summer sleep-away camp. I still have about six, single-spaced typewritten pages. I'm too embarrassed to read them, but some day I will.

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  5. I wish I could remember the very first mystery I ever read--not counting NAncy Drew and Trixie Belden and Donna Parker and Cherry Ames. It had to be, I think, a Sherlock Holmes short story, and could it have been Speckled Band? It would be such fun to know. I was glued to Perry Mason on TV, but don;t think I read the books. I certainly remember reading Murder on the Orient Express--but wasn't it called Murder on the Calais Coach? Or is that different?

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  6. Lucy, I wonder about that! It applies to me, at least..I could not have written my books at 25 instead of 55. HOw about you?

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  7. Charles, your story resonates! How many of us figured we'd come out of the gate with... if not a bestseller, a saleable novel. Then bump against reality. Then persevered, gathered criticism and used it, as you have.

    My first mystery? I'd read Holmes and Nancy Drew, of course. But it was an Unsuitable Job for a Woman - P. D. James - that hooked me on the genre. Oh, Cordelia Gray! How I wish James had written more than two. It's the one that convinced me it wasn't all about plot and it didn't have to turn on coincidence.

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    1. The first crime writer that hooked me was Dashiell Hammett. I read everything I could get my hands on. Oh, and for those out there who haven't been published yet and think that after your first one it gets easier, sorry, it doesn't. In fact, it can be more difficult, especially if your sales are dismal. So, the irony is this: you can actually become a better writer but it can be more difficult to get published. Crazy, right?

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  8. Charles, I was chuckling while reading your road to giving up your virtue. It reminds me of the Virginia Woolf quote: "Writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, and then you do it for money."

    Also, I agree with Lucy - novelists are better with a few years on them.

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    1. We are. I'm a far better writer now than I was twenty years ago, ten years ago, and probably last year.

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  9. Yes, I too read the Trixie Beldens and the Nancy Drews but the first grown-up book I remember was an Agatha Christie that was in my Christmas stocking. It was a Miss Marple and I didn't remember the title but I think it must have been The 4:50 From Paddington. Maybe it had a different title then? Anyway, the floodgates were opened! I went on the read all of Christie and then Mary Roberts Rhinehart and more!

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  10. I love this essay. It's something my husband and I discussed with Glen Erik Hamilton's wife at the last Bouchercon (did I seriously just write that?). We want to read stories about people. The crimes happen, sure, but it's the people that matter.

    Lucy and Julia - I think you might be on to something. As much as I wanted to be a writer in my 20s, I just don't think I'd lived enough.

    And first novel? Well, of course I read Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie. But the first book that make me say, "I want to do THAT" was Mary Higgins Clark's, STILLWATCH. I still shiver thinking about it.

    Mary/Liz

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  11. Charles, this is exactly why I read so much much crime fiction--the best of it is not about the crime--I get hooked on the characters, the world they live in--how the crime disrupts that world, just as you said. I can't believe I've never come across Swann! Will have to rectify that ASAP. First mystery would have been Nancy Drew, from there I went directly to John Creasy, Georges Simenon, Ellis Peter's George Felse novels, Christie, Rex Stout.

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    1. Thanks, Flora. It's actually fun for me as a writer to write crime novels that don't have murders in them. It forces me to think out of the box, and not become lazy. The novel I just finished is about a master burglar and although there are murders in it, they're totally incidental to the plot and they take place off the page and are there only to enhance character. And in the new Swann I just started, the crimes are searching for a missing witness to a crime and looking for a fortune teller who's bilked someone out of a lot of money--fraud. It forces me to concentrate on character.

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  12. Welcome Charles. Your story is wonderful, and I look forward to your books.

    My first experience with the mystery novel was bumping into Miss Marple at the local library. I must have been about 8 or 9. From there on I progressed to Ellery Queen and Nero Wolf, Dorothy Sayers and P.D. James. From that moment this has been my preferred genre, although I hate to call it a genre. I can't think of one great piece of literature that doesn't include suspense and mystery. But oh well. P.S. I have never read Nancy Drew.

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    1. As a kid, I read every Hardy Boys mystery I could get my hands on, so I guess that was my introduction to the genre, Flinta.

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  13. I enjoyed reading this, Charles. Thanks for sharing your journey.

    I do remember the book that took me past Trixie Belden (hmm, something a lot of Red Readers have in common.) Around 1964, I was at the cottage, where, as you may know, you have to read what's there. I picked up an "adult" mystery, Agatha Christie's After the Funeral (though published as Murder at the Gallop, with Margaret Rutherford on the cover. It's a Poirot book.) No matter.

    I was absolutely blown away by the whole package: the cleverness of the plot, the clues right there in plain sight, and how everything all shifted entirely when Poirot explained what had REALLY happened. I remember taking it home and handing it to my best friend Donna (fellow Trixie aficionado)and saying READ THIS! I can't remember her reaction, so she must have been underwhelmed, but the thing is, not only do I still own that copy, but just yesterday I read it again, for the second time. Yup, all these years later. It was my gateway mystery.

    susan d (just in case my sign-in self-destructs again)

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  14. Yes, Katherine Hall Page once said she wished I had started writing sooner, so the two of us could have been newbies together. Such a sweet thing to say! But no way could I have written then what I do now. And I completely agree, it's so gratifying to see a line you wrote and say ..you know, this is kind of good. That feeling lasts only a moment, but it's fun while it does.

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  15. I guess it has to be all about stakes, and life-and-death is the highest stakes. So when it's not that, it may be that you have to be a different/"better" writer to create the same level of necessity and suspense.

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  16. Hi Charles! What a great story. It sounds like you've found the right combination of character and plot, and I love the idea that your crimes are not murder. Narrative hooks don't have to be big as long as we care about the characters.

    Hank, first mysteries... The Bobbsey Twins! Then Nancy Drew, and I did collect every single one. I wish I could remember my first introduction to "grown-up" mysteries. It was probably an Agatha Christie, and I always preferred the Poirots to the Marples. But those were merely the gateway books:-) On to Marsh and Allingham, Tey and Dorothy Sayers, and then, of course, PD James.

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    1. Thanks, Deborah. When you think about it, how many plotlines really stay with us? There are always the exceptional ones, like 10 Little Indians, or even the Maltese Falcon, but with Hammett, for instance, it's Nick and Nora Charles and Sam Spade, and the Continental Op, who we really connect with, and with Chandler it's Marlowe.

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  17. My mother was a mystery enthusiast, so in addition to my early exposure to Trixie Belden, Cherry Ames, Donna Parker et al, I grew up around my mom's books and began reading some of them at a young age. But then in young adulthood I wandered away from mysteries for a while, believing (I'm ashamed to admit) they were unsophisticated. But then I remember a point when I was maybe in my late 30's, career going full force, reading time in short supply, when I had two or three consecutive disappointing reading experiences with "literary fiction" -- where I came to the end of the book and couldn't figure out why it ended there or what just happened. I remember thinking to myself, "I'm going to read a mystery. At least I know when I come to the end of that, there will be some sort of resolution." The results were so satisfying that mysteries remain the biggest part of my reading even today.

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    1. Susan, that's fascinating! (Do you remember what those books were? :-) )

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  18. I read through the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, etc. until I outgrew them.I honestly don't remember what "adult" book I jumped to. It could have been Sherlock Holmes. I DO remember watching Soupy Sales on TV. I loved that show. We called one of my little sisters Black Tooth after one of her baby teeth turned black after some rough housing gone wrong. I always wondered how tall White Fang and Black Tooth were.

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    1. Yes, yes! Let's get Charles to talk about Soupy!

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    2. I'm happy to talk about him. Before I signed on to do the book with him I hadn't met him (though I'd grown up watching him on TV). And editor and agent asked me to collaborate on the memoir and I said yes thinking, how much fun will this be! Unfortunately, no one bothered to tell me that Soupy had been ill. I don't know whether it was because he was suffering from Parkinson's or because he'd perhaps had a stroke, but I'd start out interviewing him and slowly his voice would progressively get softer and softer, and I'd move closer and closer until, after maybe ten minutes, I couldn't hear him at all, and my tape recorder couldn't pick up a thing. I was panic-stricken! How could I possibly do a memoir with a man who couldn't talk? But I came up with an idea I hoped would work. I'd get as many secondary sources as I could, but I would do the bulk of the book by finding people who worked with Soupy over the years and interview them and let them tell his story. And so, I found Frank Nastasi, who played all the auxiliary parts on the show: White Fang, Onions Oregano, and so on, and interviewed him. And then I found people who'd been on his show and were hit in the face with a pie (which was a badge of honor), like my friend Ross Klavan's father, Gene Klavan, who was part of the radio duo, Klavan and Finch. And Soupy's wife, a lovely woman who'd danced on the Jackie Gleason show as a June Taylor dancer. In any case, I was able to cobble together a memoir that satisfied Soupy and his fans, I think. As for Soupy, he was a dream to work with--very easy-going and accessible. We'd meet at Sarge's Deli, near his apartment, or the Friar's Club. People probably think he made a lot of money over the years, but that wasn't true, because the pay back then was pretty abysmal. But he never complained. But as I said, he wasn't in the best of health, which was kind of sad.

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    3. Oh, my gosh. A June Taylor dancer. I am about to cry. We really need to chat. Cannot wait to hear everything..what an experience, on so many levels.

      And hey--show me an orchestra leader's helper, and I'll show you a band aid. I still laugh at that!

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  19. I'm so glad you became a writer! I really enjoyed your post ~

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    1. Oops, the books that hooked me on crime fiction were Nancy Drew and Alfred Hitchcock ~

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    2. Alfred Hitchcock--movies? Or the magazine? Or what?

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    3. Trying to remember my first Alfred HItchcock--what would that have been?

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    4. He had some mystery books that I used to check out from the Library -- one was Alfred Hitchcock's Solve Them Yourself mysteries, where he would start a story, and stop at different parts to see if you had figured out any of the clues yet. It was really fun and gave you a chance to be a detective.

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  20. I love this essay -- often at the end of a mystery, I don't really care that much "who did it" -- it is all the whys, all the deceptions, all the human elements.

    I must have said this before here, but my father read the NY Daily News. On Sundays there were true crime stories -- and I was so drawn to them!! Still, I didn't read mystery books until much later.

    As an English major/snob I read fairly highbrow, until my sister gave me a pile of Agatha Christie novels one Christmas. I have never looked back!

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    1. The Daily News still runs those stories every Sunday Denise Ann, and I still read them.

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    2. Oh, so interesting Charles..can we find them on line? oxo

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  21. Hi, Charles! I love that when you were told "No!" your immediate response was to push back with an "I'll show you a plot!" From what I've seen, that attitude usually separates the successful from the unsuccessful in the publishing game. You listed all of my favorite writers of detective fiction, so I am quite positive I am going to love your work, especially because it's character driven. Looking forward to reading your Henry Swann books.

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    1. Thanks, Jenn. That stubborn streak comes kind of naturally to me. That, and never saying no to anything.

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  22. Charles Salzberg, welcome to Jungle Reds! You look like a friend, Martin Sternberg, who wrote a book called Pictures in the Air: the Story of the National Theater of the Deaf.

    Hank, my 6th grade teacher mentioned mystery books at the public library. I checked out a mystery novel for kids at the library. Forgot the author's name! Around the same time, I was receiving Nancy Drew books from the Nancy Drew Book Club. They were a year subscription as a birthday gift from my grandfather. After the 6th grade, I went to a middle school where they thought I was stupid! So they put me in remedial reading classes, which had books that I already read in kindergarten!!!

    So I decided to challenge myself by reading difficult books! I was 12 years old and I saw Bertram;s Hotel by Agatha Christie being read on one of my favorite detective television shows. My first adult mystery novel was Bertram's Hotel by Agatha Christie. And it was a big challenge for me at that time! I devoured all of the Christie novels.

    I continue to read mystery novels.

    Great post!

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    1. BIb! That is a wonderful and inspirational story..thank you! xoox

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    2. That was Hank talking above..forgot to log out..xoox

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  23. Good essay, Charles. Very true and very well told, too. To answer Hanks question: yes, I do. I read mysteries, on and off, from my teens on. ( I may be the only female mystery writer who was not a childhood Nancy Drew fan) But I remember for sure the book that made me think I might write one. Susan Isaacs Compromising Positions.At that point in my life I had never lived in a quaint English village, an exotic European town, the mean city streets. My life had been boring. I had nothing to write about. Then Isaacs wrote an extremely good mystery about the most boring place in the world ( I thought) an American suburb. And I had a whole new sense of what could be written

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  24. Trixie, Nancy, Cherry; oh, I read them all. But I vividly remember my first adult mystery. At age 11 or 12, I happened on "Nerve" by Dick Francis. Boy, was I hooked! Francis is one of my favorites to this day. I still read mysteries as often as I can and anxiously await new books by my favorites. Rhys last week, a new Maisie Dobbs next week, etc.

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    1. Dick Francis was a big influence.. I so agree!

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    2. That was me, actually. I forgot to change logins...xoxo Hank

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  25. Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown, "The Westing Game" we're early favorites. I feel like I've missed a lot of the classics. But where to begin?!

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  26. Yes! Susan Isaacs! Exactly! (-and amazingly I am on a panel with her next week in NYC!)

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