Every crime-fiction enthusiast has his or her own story about getting hooked on the genre. Where they were, who introduced them to these often sensational and sordid yarns, what book first piqued their interest in reading further.
This is mine.
Catch up on your mysteries and thrillers with last week’s Rap Sheet.
I was in my second year of high school, attending a private, all-boys Catholic institution in Portland, Ore., during the early 1970s. That school had been principally my choice, because it was said to offer much better academic training than the public school to which I’d otherwise have been sent. And I prided myself on being a serious student. But I was having trouble fitting in, not being religious or particularly outgoing. By my sophomore year, I had begun to wonder whether I’d made a mistake in convincing my parents to give me this opportunity.
Then one day I found the courage to approach the school’s head librarian, a priest in his 50s, apparently stern and unsocial, but with the most animated bushy, dark eyebrows I had ever seen. I’d heard that he was in need of some student assistance to keep the shelves stocked and in order. If there was one thing I felt comfortable with, it was books. Both my mother and maternal grandfather had encouraged my reading, though I did not always take their recommendations of what to sample next. (My grandfather favored adventure novels, while my mother preferred the works of M. Somerset Maugham.) So I figured that volunteering in a library was an ideal job.
Amazingly, the priest agreed to take me on. However, it was the assistant librarian, Rosemary Lacey, who proved most influential to my future. She was then in her mid-40s, a short but spirited woman with an ill-behaved head of gray hair, oversized glasses and a bright smile she shared with everyone who entered her domain. Although my responsibilities were limited, I found myself spending a great deal of free time working in the back office of that library and chatting with the warm-hearted and delightful Mrs. Lacey. She was as enthusiastic a reader as one could hope to find, with an omnivorous taste in fiction. It was she who introduced me to horror writers Tom Tryon (The Other, Night Magic) and Stephen King, as well as historical novelist Taylor Caldwell (Captains and the Kings), Peter Benchley (Jaws) and many others.
Most importantly, though, Mrs. Lacey passed along a cheap Bantam paperback copy of The Moving Target by Ross Macdonald. That 1949 novel marked the debut of Macdonald’s fictional Los Angeles private eye, Lew Archer. Its plot found Archer trying to locate a missing oil millionaire and running a gauntlet of peculiar characters to earn his fee of $65 a day. Now, I’d read a scattering of traditional mystery short stories by that point. I was also a follower of TV crime dramas such as The NBC Mystery Movie and Ironside. But The Moving Target was something different—a vigorous, thoughtful, often compassionate tale of love and greed with an ending that questioned whether anyone was truly trustworthy. It knocked me back on my heels.
In no time, I was tackling the rest of Macdonald’s oeuvre, and from there discovered Robert B. Parker, Sara Paretsky, Arthur Lyons, Stuart M. Kaminsky, Sue Grafton, Loren D. Estleman and other such crime-fictionists. I even had the extraordinary good luck, in 1980, to interview Ross Macdonald. During the decades since, I’ve read thousands of crime, mystery and thriller novels, spoken with myriad authors influential in the genre, reviewed hundreds of their books and become a fan for life. All because a woman named Rosemary Lacey gave me a novel she suspected I might enjoy. Let this be a lesson: Anyone who tells you that libraries and librarians can’t make a difference in the life of a young person is dead wrong.
I recently learned that Mrs. Lacey is still doing well in her 80s, and volunteers at a public library just outside Portland. I think it’s about time I called her up to say thanks for the gift she gave me—a gift much greater than she realized.
So, would anyone else like to share his or her own story of getting started as a crime-fiction fan?