by J.D. Rhoades
All my life, I’ve been a reader. My family still talks about how I’d disappear at family gatherings, only to be found later in my parents’ car, stretched out on the bench seat with my feet up in the open window, reading. Whenever and wherever a book was lying around, I’d have to pick it up and read it. Some of the books I picked up during those formative years certainly served as gateways to my current addiction to writing and reading about bad people doing bad things. So return with me now, to those glorious days of me misspent youth, to the writers who hooked me on mysteries and thrillers and led me inexorably to the hard stuff….
Donald Sobol: The Encyclopedia Brown series featured a "boy detective" and the P.I. agency he ran out of the family garage. I snapped them up like popcorn in elementary school. Encyclopedia (given name: Leroy) was a brainy kid who somehow managed not to get the crap kicked out of him by bigger kids. This may have had something to do with his pal Sally, who even the bullies feared. (Come to think of it, this may explain my long standing affection for tough female characters). Encyclopedia always managed to foil the machinations of his personal Moriarty, an evil kid named Bugs Meany. He always caught some inconsistency or other that showed Bugs or some other junior miscreant was fibbing. Once caught, of course, the bad guy always confessed. The best part was where, just before the big revelation, the story would break and give the reader a chance to figure the mystery out for themselves. I managed it about half the time, which made me even more eager to try my hand at the next one.
Arthur Conan Doyle: It’s impossible to have grown up in the late twentieth century and not at least had a good idea of who Sherlock Holmes was. His image, in one form or another, was everywhere: commercials, movies, even on children’s television where a parody character named Sherlock Hemlock was a fixture on Sesame Street. So when I found a collection of Holmes stories in the school library, they seemed strangely familiar, yet still totally engrossing. (I can still remember the cover of that book by the way,with its iconic painting of Holmes in deerstalker cap and magnifying glass). The line, "They were the tracks of an enormous hound!" still sends a chill down my spine, thirty-odd years later.
Rex Stout: It was shortly after falling under the spell of Holmes that I discovered Nero Wolfe in the town library where my Mom took me every Saturday (or at least the ones when I didn’t ride my bike to the Sunrise Theater to watch Godzilla flicks and chop-socky movies). It’s a natural progression, when you think about it, since there’s actually a theory that the corpulent agoraphobic sleuth Wolfe is actually a descendant of Sherlock’s smarter and equally reclusive brother Mycroft. Whatever his origins, Rex Stout’s pairing of the intellectual, puzzle solving detective with the wisecracking hard-boiled type, as embodied in Wolfe’s assistant Archie Goodwin, bridged the gap between two supposedly incompatible sub-genres.
Erle Stanley Gardner (writing as A.A. Fair): Hammett, Chandler and Ross McDonald may have done it better, but "A.A. Fair’s" series about the team of Donald Lam and Bertha Cool were my first introduction to the wonderful world of P.I. fiction. You can thank one of those library book sales, where I found a dozen or more "Mystery Book Club" 3-in-1 volumes for a quarter each, several featuring the wonderfully named Lam and Cool. Bertha was the boss of the outfit, a plus-sized lady as "tough as a coil of barbed wire." Lam was, in Bertha’s words A "brainy little runt" who did better using his wits (and his wit) than he ever did with his fists. Great characters, snappy dialogue, and ingenious (occasionally too ingenious) twists. How can you go wrong?
Ian Fleming: "The two .38’s roared simultaneously." So begins Moonraker, the first James Bond novel I ever read. I picked it up when I was 12 or 13 from the bookshelf in my uncle’s old room at my grandparent’s house. I was hooked from the first scene, where Bond is engaging in gunfighting practice under the amused eye of "the Instructor" ("I’m in hospital, but you’re dead, sir"). From there, Bond heads upstairs to M’s office, and from thence to a confrontation with the evil Sir Hugo Drax. Like Sherlock Holmes, the image of Bond was unavoidable for anyone not living in a cave in the late 60’s-early 70’s, but these were the first books I found that were actually better than the movies.
John D. McDonald; I came across Travis McGee, John D. McDonald’s "tattered knight errant on a spavined steed" at just the right time in my life. Around my mid-teens, I was a lonely kid with a streak of romanticism and a tendency to wax philosophical. McGee was a loner with streak of romanticism and a tendency to wax philosophical, but he was as tough and cool as I wanted to be someday. Plus, he lived on a boat, and he got all the hot women, even though they were usually gone and often dead by the beginning of the next book. Re-reading those books now, I can’t help but still be impressed at McDonald’s storytelling abilities. Despite the digressions over relationships and the destruction of the beauty of South Florida, these books really move.
Trevanian: When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I read and reread Trevanian’s books five or six times each. Trevanian, the pen name of Rodney Whitaker, was probably best known for his novel The Eiger Sanction which was made into one of the more fun 70’s Clint Eastwood flicks.
The movie was certainly memorable, but there was no way to capture
on film that certain atmosphere that Trevanian brought to his spy
adventures, that sense of never being quite sure when he was putting
you on. I mean, how could you resist a character like art
collector/assassin Jonathan Hemlock, who worked for a shadowy
(literally) intelligence boss named Yurassis Dragon? (say that last
name fast if you don’t know why it makes me laugh out loud). My absolute favorite Trevanian character was Nicolai Hel, the half-Japanese assassin of Trevanian’s classic Shibumi.
Killer. Philosopher. Master of Oriental sex tricks. Wine connisseur. When it came to cool, Nicolai Hel gave Bond a run for his money. Trevanian’s books had style. They had wit. They had great and
often bizarre characters. They had hot sex. They were, above all, huge
fun to read.
So what were YOUR "gateway drugs"?